Nitya Teachings

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Chapter II - Arjuna Becomes a Disciple


    Samkhya Yoga

         Unitive Reasoning


         Chapter I depicted the epic context, a sea of humans caught in a fateful doom of their own making, with Arjuna and Krishna stepping to the exact center to search for a better outcome. Arjuna then described all the obligations and beliefs that repeatedly bring humanity to this terrible condition, but he could see no way out of it, and all he wanted was to quit and get away. So far he has only treated Krishna as his chariot driver, but soon he will ask him to teach him, to be his guru. Krishna is about to speak for the first time, testing Arjuna to see if he has what it takes to become a worthy disciple. With their mutual acceptance, the Gita begins its instruction in earnest.

         Needless to say, the firm resolve Arjuna must take is meant to be ours too. The Gita is not intended for casual perusal. It is a full fledged science of the Absolute, a textbook of the most practical wisdom, designed to lift seekers of truth out of their self-sabotaging morass of ordinary mentality. Of course, anyone can read it, but to benefit from it the most we need to really think about every idea and then make them a part of our life. The commentary provided is not exclusive: it is one example of the kind of dedicated thinking that can be brought to bear, in what the Gita calls a wisdom sacrifice. It’s actually fun, and very rewarding.


1)         Sanjaya said:

         To him who was thus filled with tenderness, whose eyes were filled with tears, and agitated, and who was in distress, Krishna spoke these words:


         The narrator Sanjaya puts in a brief appearance here to tell us what would be unseemly for the participants to mention. Arjuna is agitated and upset. Sanjaya lets us know that this is an outgrowth of his extreme tenderness. Arjuna is a kindly soul, and his heart is breaking for the tragic situation everyone around has become mired in, through failure to honor their natural state of divinity. In modern terms, they have become conditioned. Seeing how far humans fall below their full potential is very sad, and the humiliation and suffering it engenders is sadder still. Precisely because Arjuna cares so much and is willing to put his whole life on the line, Krishna will teach him how to regain his openness, his native intelligence. But first he has to sound him out as to whether his dedication goes beyond mere confusion to a real desire to discover the antidote.


2)         Krishna said:

         In the midst of this difficulty, whence comes to you this dejection typical of non-Aryans, heaven-barring and disreputable, O Arjuna?


         Almost every commentator misses the boat on this one, revealing their pro-religious prejudice. Vedanta, the philosophy of the Gita, does not subscribe to the notion of heaven, nor does it give any importance to reputation. (Heaven is disdained as early as II,42, and often thereafter. An indifferent attitude to honor and disgrace is mentioned specifically in VI,7; XII,18&19; and XIV,25.) Notions of heaven and social repute are external values referring to religious and social stature, and not part of brahmavidya, the science of the Absolute. This tells us that Krishna is not castigating Arjuna here, he is teasing him. It’s as if he’s saying “What’s the matter Arjuna? Aren’t your unquestioned beliefs supporting you now? Don’t they hold up in the midst of conflict? No? Does that mean delusion isn’t good enough for you any more?” Krishna is in fact proud of him, and is preparing to pay him the ultimate homage by teaching him.

         In order to be properly prepared to learn from a guru, the seeker must work free of the death-dealing arrows of religious and social upbringing that fill the air around them.

         Krishna’s teasing has a methodological component as well. When a distraught seeker comes to a teacher, the first thing the teacher needs to ascertain is whether the student is only seeking solace, or is sincerely looking for intelligent liberation. The teacher may make some gentle, diversionary, possibly lightly mocking comments to assist in the determination. In response to such a test, Arjuna will state his case with philosophical exactitude, proving he is after more than a consoling pat on the back. Only then will Krishna see fit to instruct him.

         There is another important clue that is often overlooked in this verse. The philosophy of the Gita harks back to the pre-Vedic wisdom of the ancient Indians, who were dark skinned. When the light-skinned Aryan immigrants entered India from the northwest, they pushed the Dravidian people into the far south and instigated the Vedic religion, which not surprisingly lodged them at the top of the hierarchy that replaced the more democratic spirituality of the ancients. Where the older style was directly experiential and unitive, the newer version was more contractual and dualistic: you do something and the gods (via their intermediaries on Earth) give you something in return. The history of religion is a cyclic rise and fall of powerful insiders intent on persecuting and marginalizing the mystics, those who insist on going beyond strictures and ideas to know truth directly. Needless to say, the Gita is a how-to manual for direct mystical experience, though over time orthodox thinkers have more or less successfully neutered its message.

         Krishna happens to be black himself, which makes him a non- Aryan. The word krishna literally means “black.” So Krishna calling Arjuna a non-Aryan is not a slight but a high compliment. He recognizes that Arjuna has transcended his Aryan genetics enough to long for trans-Aryan or universal wisdom.


3)         Give yourself not to impotence, O Arjuna, it does not befit you. Cast off this base faint-heartedness. Arise, O Terror of Foes!


         Krishna lays it on a little thicker, exhorting Arjuna to be his old self, a brave, potent warrior. When Arjuna does not take the bait, it proves he is ready for instruction.

         Commentators who take every utterance of the Guru Krishna at face value are invariably led astray by these lines, straining to fit these orthodox Vedic (religious) values into the Gita’s anti-Vedic philosophy. Krishna is essentially saying, “Don’t you want to go back to being ordinary, by giving up your passing urge for wisdom instruction? That’s the path of temporal glory.” Arjuna will assure him there is no going back, once he has seen through the tawdriness of flimsy allures such as heaven and wealth.

         Despite this, over the next few chapters there are echoes of this call to stand up and fight, letting us know that there is a significant issue at stake here. Very often we are paralyzed by an awareness of our own failings and limitations. By self-analysis prior to seeking instruction, we have to bravely face our faults and acknowledge the need to correct them. At first they can be so horrifying that they seem to disqualify us for any kind of spiritual stature, and they might even make us seem utterly unworthy as human beings. Such paralysis must be thrown off before we can go forward. We must proceed in cognizance of our need for improvement, yet conscious as well that no one is perfect. Our limitations make us just like everyone else. All those saints we deify in our minds had to come to grips with similar faults before they could become great.


4)         Arjuna said:

         How could I encounter with arrows in battle Bhishma and Drona, who are worthy of worship, O Krishna?


         Bhishma and Drona are great teachers allied in opposition to the Pandavas. They represent the highest aspects of worldly achievement. From another angle, Bhishma and Drona symbolize vasanas and samskaras. Bhishma represents the ancestors, in other words, the past. Vasanas are the seeds of the past, whether genetic or karmic. Drona stands for our mental conditioning, our samskaras. He is the teacher of the arts of war. In ordinary life, we learn tactics and strategies to wage conflicts to our advantage, which erects a thick barricade between the ego and the other. Samskaras and vasanas are the twin categories of oppression, factors that limit our freedom. They cannot be defeated head on in battle, but must be transcended by the kind of yogic effort taught in the Gita as a whole. Arjuna quite rightly realizes that he cannot fight fire with fire, that he cannot sweep away his “enemies” by substituting new conditioning for the old, so he implores Krishna to help him out of his impossible conundrum. Krishna is happy to oblige. More on vasanas and samskaras will be found throughout the work; for definitions see especially V, 14.

         Arjuna is asking How can I oppose these admirable values that everyone else respects? And not just how, but why should I? He is feeling a last twinge of doubt about entering the very path he has chosen. It isn’t unusual to shrink from our destiny at the very moment it beckons to us, like a bird who pauses before flying out of the open door of its cage. But “he who hesitates is lost.” We have to take the plunge, and without undue delay. Seen in this light, the repartee between guru and neophyte here is a masterful sketch of the subtle psychological interplay taking place.

         Have you ever seen a dog on a leash being dragged along, whining and rolling its eyes in terror? Not likely. They strain forward with every atom of their being, blissfully investigating every nuance of their environment, wagging their tails in delight. Such is the proper attitude of a seeker of truth. Unfortunate conditioning may make us afraid to participate in this wondrous world in which we have taken up temporary abode, but when everything extraneous is subtracted through insightful contemplation our innate eagerness is effortlessly restored. This is the conversion that Arjuna is requesting of his guru, and Krishna will be delighted to show him how to bring it about. Arjuna’s dutiful role as decreed by the world has pinched him painfully, and now the only clothes that will fit are those perfectly tailored for him, his true dharma.

         Arjuna also expresses a basic realization of the seeker here, that the world is worthy of worship. It is astoundingly beautiful and endlessly, artistically complex. He no longer has the slightest urge to damage it or disrupt its flow out of selfishness. Still, he has to resist its superficial allure to pave the way for deeper understanding.


5)         Desisting from the killing of the Gurus, who are highly honorable, it would be more meritorious in this world even to have to eat of a beggar’s pittance. Choosing, on the other hand, to kill these Gurus as fortune-seekers, I should be feasting even here on blood-stained benefits of life.


         Paraphrase: I can shirk my duty and accomplish nothing, or I can do my duty and commit a terrible crime. Neither option is acceptable.

         In our inner reading of the meaning here, taking the gurus as representing conditioning in the form of samskaras and vasanas, if Arjuna doesn’t fight them but goes along with them, whatever he accomplishes is merely a mechanical product of his conditioning. Acting as a conditioned soul is a living death. On the other hand, if he actively fights his conditioning it is like ripping out the foundation of his external life. He will then have to substitute his conditioning with rational intentions, which is likewise fraught with peril, because rationality leaves out many factors. Meekly following one’s prescribed course of life, or charting a course with too little information, are the two paths available to almost everyone. These are inadequate to seekers of truth, and the Gita is going to show us a third way of transcendental liberation, one that charts its own course after accessing a holistic source of inner inspiration.

         Arjuna is expressing his difficulty accurately, without exaggeration, and he is demonstrating a dialectical or yogic balance in what he says. He is experiencing the dilemma of a philosopher/seeker, not a coward. Yet his dialectics are flawed, as shown by the negative results he foresees. Krishna will counterbalance this negativity with positivity in equal measure in verse 37 of this chapter.

         Evidence that this section is of special value is found in the meter. Almost all of the Gita is phrased in four lines of eight syllables each (or two of sixteen). On rare occasions the meter expands to eleven beats per line. There are 19 of these verses scattered around, plus 36 describing Arjuna’s vision of the Cosmic Form in Chapter XI, and they invariably highlight concepts of special note. The first four instances are verses 5-8 here, where Arjuna states his case clearly and requests discipleship of Krishna. Nataraja Guru calls the extended lines the exalted or rhapsodic meter, describing them in his introduction in this manner:


The interludes interspersed here and there in the Gita in a metre and verse form more ample and elaborate than the rest, have a tone of exaltation and ecstasy which gives to the Gita that pure and time-honoured touch which reflects credit to the highest of hopes of which the human spirit is capable. Such interludes attain to the heights of a spiritual rhapsody which is rare in any literature. (69)


6)         Neither is it clear which would be of greater advantage to us: that we win or that they win over us. Those very persons are standing ranged before us, the Sons of Dhritarashtra, killing whom we would no longer wish to live.


         Arjuna demonstrates more dialectic insight here: he has examined the current dilemma from both horns, or both poles, and seen that it is not advantageous that either one prevail. He does not yet know how to attain a dynamic synthesis through yogic contemplation, but he knows he needs something more than ordinary logic affords.

         Before approaching Krishna, Arjuna has carefully subtracted his personal feelings from the equation. This is necessary for a proper dialectic as well as philosophical basis from which to address the guru. The simplistic argument of many commentators that Arjuna should be taught to return to a positive state of combativeness undermines the Gita’s elegant insight.

         The Gita’s response to aggression is not to fight back and not to give up and slink away either. We are to stand grounded in our very nature, which is the Absolute, discard selfish motives and desired outcomes, and play the game expertly as it unfolds around us. To paraphrase the I Ching, “He who acts from these deep levels makes no mistakes.” Or as Nataraja Guru puts it, “Achieving the state of yogic balance reveals the Absolute.”


7)         Struck down by the evil of a tender disposition, with a mind confounded in regard to what is right to do, I ask you: that which is definitely more meritorious do indicate to me. I am your disciple; do discipline me coming thus for refuge to you.


         It is easy to get caught up in what Arjuna should actively do in this situation, and believe that Krishna will show him unequivocally what he is called to perform. Few realize that Arjuna does do the correct thing at this juncture: he turns to a Guru. This is precisely the right act at the moment when doubts overwhelm you, when social dictates no longer have meaning. Where the ordinary person would blindly stumble ahead or look for a hiding place, Arjuna has the wisdom to admit his limitations and ask for help. In defiance of our expectations, however, in the final analysis Krishna does not prescribe any activity for him, he teaches his disciple how to make his own wise decisions.

         Suggestions to turn to a beacon of light when in distress are common to many religions, whose exemplars may be considered gurus—-removers of darkness—-in their own contexts. All agree that acting blindly when in a confused state is a recipe for trouble.

         We encounter here true surrender. Arjuna has determined that he is incapable of resolving his dilemma on his own, and submits to one who he trusts implicitly and honors as a worthy teacher. He casts off the typical attitude of mediocre seekers, that they are superior to any teacher and are just sounding them out, merely testing their abilities. The ego tends to be convinced of its rightness no matter how much suffering it is undergoing, and defends its position with skepticism and judgmentalism, imagining that these qualities will bring it solidity. Casting off all defensive maneuvers to open oneself to the teacher is the healthy version of surrender. No groveling or exaggerated self-deprecation are involved, either, which are simply the flip side of excessive pride. Imagining that God or Guru is made larger by you becoming smaller is absurd, and it makes absorbing the teaching impossible. Arjuna must both surrender and still pay attention with every fiber of his being. Attaining such a neutral state is a significant achievement.

         It seems a bit odd to classify tenderness or a tender-hearted disposition as evil. We usually think of it as merely soft and sentimental, and many commentators note how unwarriorlike those attitudes are. For those of us who are not warriors, however, soft heartedness and sentimentality, with their overtones of compassion and gentleness, are far from evil.

         The word translated as tender here is upahata, which according to the Monier-Williams dictionary (hereafter MW) means hit, hurt, damaged, injured, afflicted, pained or infected. This type of tenderness comes from sensitivity occasioned by previous psychological wounds. In modern terms we would call them sore spots. Everyone accumulates sore spots in the course of their life, yet few are able to stand apart from their influence. We bend and warp the course of our life in order to avoid them, and more particularly to protect them so others cannot touch or even see them. This type of tenderness evokes past injuries and overlays their coloration on the present. It may be called evil to the extent that it interferes with a straightforward response to current circumstances. Too much sensitivity is therefore just as bad as too little. Guarding oneself makes it impossible to act impeccably. Once again, the fact that Arjuna recognizes this weakness in himself sets him apart as a most superior candidate for wisdom instruction. The vast majority of humans are unaware that they are guarding their tender places both from others and from themselves.

         All of Arjuna’s contacts with his family and friends that wounded him in the past have made him tender, too tender to know what to do in the present. His confusion arising from his wounded psyche and the impossible paradox before him brings him to the ultimate act of an individual, when he can at last fully and properly surrender to a guru. He suspects what the Gita holds to be true: that the full flood of absolutist wisdom alone can wash away such stains of the past, allowing proper attunement with the present.

         It is absolutely essential for the disciple to request teaching from a guru. A teacher never wants to impose anything on anyone, but stands always ready to respond appropriately. It may always be the case that the requester gets more than they bargained for, but the request is nevertheless necessary to initiate the process.


8)         I cannot visualize what could rid me of this distress which dries up the senses in this way—even should (it transpire that) I obtain unrivalled dominion of the earth’s plenty or overlordship of the gods in heaven too.


         It’s absolutely true that piling up stuff is not a cure for mental confusion, but that is a prime fantasy that has become even more acute in the present day. “He who dies with the most toys, wins,” is a familiar American motto. Arjuna clearly sees that distractions of any kind are simply sources of frustration, and he utterly rejects them. When a baby cries we can sometimes coax it to calmness with a glittering bauble or some bouncing, but that doesn’t work with a battered adult psyche. Generations of humans have struggled to divert themselves with ever more complex toys, but their underlying malaise is not assuaged by them, only driven underground where it breeds inexplicable longings and depression.

         Arjuna has exhausted every avenue he can conceive of. It would be unfair and selfish to ask a guru to teach the preliminary ideas anyone should find self-evident with a little contemplation or a trip to the library. At this point he has eliminated the beliefs of his social and religious upbringing, and found that even his own intelligence still falls short when observing the matter clearly. He is caught in an inevitable, insoluble situation. Only now can he properly surrender to Krishna, without holding out for some measure of consolation for his ego. This is extremely important. A disciple who has not taken these steps will continue to judge the guru on his own limited terms, and won’t be able to reach the level of trust necessary to effect the transmission of wisdom.

         Certainly we must start by questioning everything, teacher, society, and our assumptions, but we have to move beyond doubting to establish a trusting rapport which will allow us to assimilate what the guru has to offer. In the modern world this is an extremely alien attitude. It is very hard to conceive of surrendering the ego to someone else, because trust exists nowhere outside of the immediate family, if even there. Large-scale societies are based on mistrust. Everyone is taught to cling to their personal interests no matter what. In many cases this is healthy, and prevents them from being taken advantage of. But in wisdom transmission, as in an ideal marriage, trust builds up to the point that a person truly can open their heart to the partner or preceptor. In marriage this is called true love. In discipleship this is where wisdom transmission takes place. More will be said of this at the beginning of Chapter IX.


9)         Sanjaya said:

         Having spoken thus to Krishna, Arjuna, the Terror of the Foe, saying “I will not fight,” lapsed finally into silence.


         The wording of this verse leaves some with the impression that Arjuna is sulky and sullen, and his silence is a negative state of withdrawal. Hardly. He has just finished stating his case perfectly and asked Krishna to accept him as a disciple. His silence is wholly proper. He must now listen with all his heart. Anything more he might say would be carping.

         The ability to listen is actually a rare and exceptional accomplishment. The usual way for humans is to mediate everything coming into the ear with a stream of commentary inside their head. We are busy interpreting all input in terms of what we already know. This inner voice must be brought to a standstill before anything new can get past the filter. It would be tragic if the flow of grace from the Absolute were to be changed into a sterile image stuck in a pigeonhole in a person’s memory banks, but unless the interpretive process is interrupted that’s exactly what will happen. Listening with an open mind is thus the ultimate prerequisite for learning from a guru.

         Religious warnings against idolatry refer to this same problem. Instead of admitting the light of the divine—or for that matter, the light of whatever is coming to us—into ourselves, we make a “graven image” of interpretive words as a substitute. The substitute is only a poor caricature of the original, but it satisfies us enough to turn to it instead of the light. In this way our world becomes solipsistic, shrinking to exclude anything new.

         Arjuna’s silence means he has disconnected his graven image-making apparatus, opening himself to whatever ineffable grace Krishna, representing the Absolute, will offer.

         Many seekers approach a guru eager to obtain some benefit, wealth or power or occult abilities, for instance. Desire-based seeking lies wholly outside the wisdom context, however. While there are many purported benefits to spiritual life, telepathy or clairvoyance for instance, they are to be treated as incidental side effects of a proper focus on the undifferentiated Absolute. In a sense, having a personal desire means you haven’t yet become quiet in the way Arjuna has. You are still packing baggage. The Gita makes it clear that all such desires are to be relinquished as a prerequisite to instruction. Decommissioning all possible alternatives to arrive at a state of psychic balance is the Upanishadic method Arjuna has just demonstrated.

         An extraordinary example of dialectic occurs in this verse, where Arjuna is described as the Terror of the Foe and simultaneously avers that he will not fight. These contrary movements cancel each other out to bring him to the expectant neutrality from which his discipleship will grow and flourish.
         Lastly, we should keep in mind throughout our study that Arjuna has made this assertion that he will not fight. Future exhortations by Krishna for him to fight, which are mitigated and refined over the course of the work, are the counterbalancing force of the Guru being employed to neutralize the imbalance in the disciple. This is one of many subtle indications of what bipolarity means and how it effects the transformation of the disciple. Commentators who baldly assert that this means the Gita is in favor of warfare are wholly off the mark.


10)         On this, Krishna, with a semblance of smiling, spoke these words to him who was in grief between the two armies:


         The Absolute is thoroughly neutral, and so it only wears the semblance of a smile. On top of its neutrality is the slightest positive pressure, which is enough to bring about the entire panoply of creation. If individual organisms had to create their worlds from scratch, it would be incredibly tedious and chaotic. Yet it is self-evidently harmonious, filled with perfectly functioning and even artistic beings and interrelationships that can be seen wherever one looks. This benign force, gentle and powerful at once, is symbolized by Krishna’s minimalist smile.

         Krishna’s beaming countenance is also a dialectical counterpoint to Arjuna’s despair. It is contains a message of hope. If we are permitted to read a little into it, it demonstrates satisfaction with Arjuna’s eminently excellent approach to discipleship and proffers welcome to a soul ready to learn wisdom at his feet.

         When our feelings are hurt it is helpful to have a smiling friend to lift us out of our negativity. Lacking that we must do it on our own. That initial effort brings us only to the starting point of the spiritual adventure. Then to take a stand on a dynamic neutrality requires, in this case, the entire instruction of the Gita’s remaining 17 chapters. So normalizing your state of mind is not simply an improved posture, but requires a profound grasp of the “big picture.” Only through a synthetic understanding that approaches absolute beingness can a free and optimal response to the specific situation be generated.

         It is relatively easy for Arjuna to see the uselessness of combat and desist from such an obvious and obviously flawed response, albeit one that continues to enthrall superficial intellects even as late as the twenty-first century. It is more difficult for him to foreswear negative withdrawal, as it has an emotional appeal to go along with the confusion of intellect that abets this as an easy way out. In the long run neither positive aggression or negative withdrawal are satisfactory. The Gita teaches the dialectical synthesis of both options through yogic or unifying wisdom.

         A dependent person expects that following the rules will bring happiness, and an independent person expects that breaking the rules will bring happiness. Neither can understand why this doesn’t thoroughly satisfy them, but they tend to be reasonably content because they’ve met their own expectations. As both these attitudes are based on rules, modern society is experiencing an explosion of laws covering every detail of life. Rules and laws are worshiped. It appears to be almost impossible to extricate ourselves from the tangled web we’ve woven. No wonder Arjuna gives up in confusion and despair! Luckily, he turns to the Guru, who smilingly reassures him that his predicament is less dire than he imagines. There is a way out.

         Nataraja Guru notes that here and in X, 1 and XI, 1 the Gita employs the singular, Word as opposed to words. The Word or logos is Aum, the absolute sound at the heart of all sounds and all words. Many words will be spoken, but they are all united within the eternal Aum, the hum of the machinery of creation at work.


11)         Krishna said:

         You are sorry for those for whom sorrow is unreasonable. You speak in terms of reason too. Veritable philosophers are not affected in regard to those whose breath has gone and those whose breath has not gone.


         A guru may not even acknowledge a request for discipleship, but launch into teaching without preamble. It helps keep the disciple on their toes, wondering if they are being taught or simply chastised. Krishna starts right in correcting the shortcomings in Arjuna’s mental state. Arjuna will have to earn his appreciation through his performance, and he will.

         The symmetrical presentation of the Absolute by Krishna begins with his first utterance. Reason is complemented with unreason, and the dead with the living. For true philosophers to be unaffected by pairs of opposites they must take them together rather than selecting one or the other. This yoga is so fundamental to the Gita that it is woven into the very language in which it is expressed.

         When the unmanifest initially comes into manifestation it is in perfect balance. After manifestation, chaos and imbalance can occur, though even they also contain a kind of symmetry. That Krishna’s words appear as a spoken mandala in balance is one of the secret keys to the Gita’s teaching. Yoga must ever unite opposing elements harmoniously in order to approach the Absolute. Conversely, opting for one side over the other, for instance choosing “good” over “bad”, throws the seeker off the track, into the endless confusion of conflicting interests. As Krishna puts it, they become affected by their partisan attitude.

         The last line is usually translated as the living or the dead, but the Gita specifically says the living and the dead. The dialectics of yoga means treating both sides as the same. There is a world of difference between ‘and’ and ‘or’ in this case. Nataraja Guru writes eloquently of this in his own inimitable commentary, and most everyone else misses the boat. Please refer to his comments on this verse and II, 16.

         As to Krishna’s main message about sorrow being unreasonable, the idea is that if we have a meaningful picture of life then there is no cause for lament anywhere. We are sad because, like a frustrated child, we don’t have what we want, not realizing how much we still have and how we can be content at every moment. Existence is a magnificent opportunity that we should enjoy to the dregs and relinquish when required, with gratitude. Reason that doesn’t go as far as this is mediocre, half-baked.

         Philosophers of ancient Greece and India, in particular, used their reason to banish sorrow. In fact, coping with problems is one of the main purposes of philosophy. For example, here’s what Alain de Botton says about a Stoic philosopher from around the time of Christ, in The Consolations of Philosophy (New York: Pantheon Books, 2000, pp.90-91):


There is a dangerous innocence in the expectation of a future formed on the basis of probability. Any accident to which a human has been subject, however rare, however distant in time, is a possibility we must ready ourselves for…. Because Fortune’s long benevolent periods risk seducing us into somnolence, Seneca entreated us to spare a little time each day to think of her. We do not know what will happen next: we must expect something. In the early morning, we should undertake what Seneca termed a praemeditatio, a meditation in advance, on all the sorrows of mind and body to which the goddess may subsequently subject us.


Part of Seneca’s recommended meditation was the line “We live in the middle of things which have all been destined to die.” The point of what he’s saying is that unexpected events throw us out of balance emotionally, while those that are anticipated may cause us pain but will not wipe us out. Perhaps his local library held a copy of the Gita, or else he was a veritable philosopher himself.


12)         Further, never was I nonexistent, nor you, nor these chiefs of men; neither shall we, all of us, ever cease becoming hereafter.


         The central tenet of Vedanta philosophy is that everything is the Absolute in essence, and so we are all one. This is also true on the atomic and subatomic levels. We are temporary expressions of an eternal condition called the universe. The word universe literally means everything turned into one. Truly knowing who we are means realizing we are part of a vast unity that permeates all things. Everyone exists equally into the infinite past as well as the infinite future. This is the Absolute’s assertion here. Those who disagree are accorded a hearing throughout the chapter, however.

         Normally we identify with the temporary part of the equation, the visible entities that are constantly being born and dying, but the wisdom of the Gita directs us to turn to the eternal aspect and identify with that (often distinguished as That). There are a number of benefits to this: greater acceptance and less fear of the unknown, reduced stress, enhanced spirit of inquiry, increased self-confidence, and many more. Identifying with the part that will soon pass away is the norm, and it leads to dissatisfaction with present circumstances and a consequent craving for salvation, padded with turmoil and harshness of spirit. We are intolerant of others to the degree we are unsure of our own status, even if it is masked by a pretension of certitude.

         From the human perspective, isolated as we are from memories of pre-birth or post-death, an assertion either way is unprovable. Whether we are eternal or temporary is strictly a matter of belief. As Albert Einstein said, there are two ways to view the universe: either nothing is a miracle or everything is a miracle. Shades of belief lying between these two poles are based on a promiscuous mixing of parts of each, which is readily seen to be absurd as soon as it is analyzed. This is a clear dichotomy: either we are eternal beings or we are mortal and expire with the body. The transcendental view, however, is that we are both together. From a synthetic perspective, there is eternity every instant, within all the changes. Immortality is a state of mind, not a bodily condition.

         If you stop to think about it, the unavoidable fact that something has arisen from nothing is the greatest possible miracle; all else is gravy, icing on the cake. Some unhappy philosophers insist that this something is really nothing, and therefore there is only nothing no matter what everybody thinks, but too bad for them. The Gita’s philosophy is aimed at making us more alive, not less.

         The Gita takes from the older Samkhyan philosophy that the immortal aspect in us uses the mortal body as a vehicle, a beast of burden to carry it around in manifestation. Those who identify with the body think of themselves as doomed, whereas those who identify with the spirit think of themselves as eternal. This is the basic dichotomy addressed in this chapter, otherwise known as the difference between matter and spirit, prakriti and purusha. At its height, the Gita aims to unify this duality in a comprehensive vision akin to a unified field theory.

         Keeping in mind the archlike shape of the Gita as a whole, the second chapter is just one notch above the horizontal toward the vertical. The full-fledged duality of the battle of life in Chapter I is being resolved into its basic components of the physical and the metaphysical, or the actual world and the world of thought. Eventually this duality will be banished altogether, but for the time being it needs to be addressed. We are only beginning the ascent.


13)         As there is here in the body, for the embodied, childhood, youth, and old age, so also the passing on to another body in the same manner; those firm in mind are not thereby bewildered.


         It’s important to keep in mind that Krishna is presenting the philosophy of rationalism here, as he points out in II, 39. Several versions of reincarnation appear in the Gita, culminating in a final revision in Chapter XV. At this point we have a fairly standard picture of how reincarnation is popularly viewed, where an individual lives in a body and when it dies moves into a new one. Death is thus a stage of growth like any other. While not entirely discredited, this will be refined later on and presented from an absolute as opposed to a relative position. In it, it is the Absolute that reincarnates as individuals, while individuals have only a transient existence.

         Indian rationalism is much broader in scope than what is called rationalism by modern academia. The latter discipline is more appropriately called materialism, although modern materialism is vitiated by so many unexamined assumptions as to be a mockery of itself. By contrast, Samkhyan rationalism is an all-embracing and fearless assessment of reality, brave enough to fully examine its assumptions.

         Belief in reincarnation doesn’t really do much for anyone. Mostly it introduces a fantasy level of wishful thinking that can only detract from contemplation. Our destiny, whatever it is, will happen regardless of what we imagine in advance. Krishna brings it in here to counteract Arjuna’s limited perspective, not as a foundational belief of some religion he is propounding. The idea is for us to become grounded in a steady yet optimistic state; to cast off the “base faintheartedness” that keeps our mind churning in unhelpful patterns.

         Bewilderment comes, as always, from fixating on the temporal flux and forgetting the eternal aspect. Once that is brought in—-as a realized reality and not simply as a form of lip service—-it is quite easy to remain “firm in mind.”


14)         Momentary sense contacts, on the other hand, yielding cold-warmth, joy-pain, alternately coming and going, are transitory. Do you endure them, O Arjuna.


         As we grow up and as our consciousness becomes more sophisticated, we begin to distinguish separate items from out of the original uniform substance. This is actually a very useful thing to do, allowing us to participate in the world around us. It’s by no means a sinful act, but it does produce an ego, which is nothing more than the locus of sensations and ideations experienced by the individual. The problems arise when we forget the unity underlying all the separate entities. We are trained to be expert in addressing all the manifold happenings—-again, a great thing—-but we get caught up in the game and forget the field it’s being played on. Because we project our inner sense of bliss onto all those separate items, we imbue them with a meaningfulness that is not intrinsic to them. Then when those items fade away, they leave us feeling bereft. And they always do fade away, eventually, despite our valiant attempts to hold on to them. Since we’ve imagined they supplied our happiness, we fear our happiness is going away with them.

         The Gita intends to help us reestablish our connection to the unity that is our true source of happiness. It’s always there, in and through everything, but we don’t see it because, well, for one thing it’s invisible. Only separate items are visible. When people say “we believe what we see,” they are unwittingly limiting their purview to omit the ground of the Absolute. Plus, seeing has been demonstrated to be much more subjective than we normally realize. To begin to know reality, we must develop a new way of seeing that isn’t dependent on subjective sense data induced by the world of manifold items. We should be able to say “we believe what we know,” or “we believe what we understand,” instead of “we believe what we see.”

         Vedantins call the state of being focused on separateness “ignorance.” Once we identify ourselves with a separate self and its items of knowledge, we automatically divide the universe into the known and the unknown. While most of us are comfortable with the known part of ourselves, somehow a profound and primal inner state of fear becomes associated with the unknown, and the fear drives us away from anything unfamiliar. We run amok precisely to the extent we forget the interconnectedness of all. A million psychology texts have been written to partially explore this terrain, but seldom is the cure mentioned: reintegration of the parts with the whole, which is the ground of the Absolute, though called by many names.

         The wording that we should merely “endure” the sensory world sounds dismal and is somewhat misleading on that account. When we bump into problematic parts of the work, we should always remind ourself that the purpose of the Gita is to teach us how to be free. If something appears binding or depressing, we simply haven’t understood it properly yet. We should ask ourselves “How will this bring freedom, and from what?”

         Titiksha means to endure or have patience with. Actually, we should enjoy sensory experiences and be engaged with them on occasion, but not allow ourselves to be carried away permanently by them. Only for a little while. If we are focused on the Absolute ground with a mind poised in neutrality, we can still interact with everything going on, and in fact we become much more expert than someone who craves sensory activities as ends in themselves.

         We could cop out at this point and just allow that Krishna is teaching the rational outlook of the day, the Samkhya system, here in the first half of Chapter II. This isn’t exactly the Gita’s final opinion on the relation of the mind to the senses. But it is such a central question, particularly in the spiritual and religious contexts, that it must be addressed.

         Many millions of people down through the centuries have intentionally circumscribed their lives in the belief that it was the spiritual thing to do. Voluntary impoverishment is a vow of monks and renunciates the world over. In rare cases we have to allow that it is spectacularly beneficial. Very often it is not. For the most part we can only imagine what the effect is, since the practitioners avoid the limelight as a matter of course. But there is no doubt that scriptures like this one are often read as exhortations to cease participation in the world and withdraw. This contradicts the stated aim of the Gita, repeated in several places, that we should continue to act, albeit from an enlightened perspective. The Gita teaches expertise in action. We have already seen Krishna preventing Arjuna from departing the scene to become a mendicant beggar.

         It is easy to comprehend that sensuality per se doesn’t bring wisdom. Pleasure yes, but not wisdom. Pleasure and its flip side pain are a part of the horizontal polarity of life, while wisdom and blissful merger with the Absolute are vertical. Krishna is instructing us in no uncertain terms not to confuse one for the other, but he is not suggesting we should avoid pleasure and pain, even if we could. They are normal parts of everyday life.

         The basic rule of thumb is that whatever has an opposite is not the Absolute. God is not the Absolute if there is something that is not God, and conversely, if God is the Absolute then everything is God. Cold and warmth—which are psychological rather than thermal states—are relative and opposite sensations, as are joy and pain. These horizontal polarities produce attraction and repulsion, described here as coming and going, which are serious impediments to a spiritual directedness. Techniques that try to force us to feel the same about being cold as being hot, for instance, are still focused on the horizontal aspect. The Gita teaches that we turn to the unity that permeates these dualities as the only way to be free of the imperative urges they inflict, and this is the meaning of “do you endure them” here. We cannot defeat them by wrestling with them, or otherwise doing battle with them, which is a prime focus of many religious practices. Verse 59, below, will cover this idea in more depth.

         All the same, a sensual life is not necessarily opposed to calm intelligence. In fact, sensory input is essential for the proper functioning of the mind. We learn and grow through so many experiences which come to us through our senses. Denying the senses and living a life of nothing but detached idealism can lead to many types of insanity as the mind becomes unmoored. Overindulgence can have detrimental effects as well, though it doesn’t seem to be quite so hard on the psyche, being more likely to produce vapidity than lunacy. The Gita repeatedly comes out in favor of a middle path, and it is especially appropriate around this issue. We should neither totally deny or excessively immerse ourselves in sensory experiences, but instead imbibe high quality ones at discrete intervals, separated by periods of reflection or meditation to assimilate their value. Experiences of beauty are tonic to the soul and mind, and stimulate more expansive viewpoints. Life is always offering us beauty to contemplate, and that is part of the slight positive impetus symbolized by Krishna’s enigmatic smile while he teaches.

         As an example, if you attend a music concert you will be benefited on many levels. (The various levels will be covered in verse 23.) It would be absurd to sit there “enduring” it, just biding your time until it ends. You can block the whole event out of your mind, but why? You gain the most by opening yourself up to it as much as possible. On the other hand, if you do nothing but go to music concerts all the time your intellect will become lopsided. And if you stay home, you will secretly envy all your friends who had no qualms about attending. Moderation, everything in modest amounts, is the key.

         Few would deny the simple fact that reason stands apart from touch, taste, smell, hearing and seeing, though the latter two are highly persuasive all the same. To purify reason, the Gita wants us to know how to shake off the convincing but deluding incursions of the steady stream of sense data. We can only think clearly when we aren’t merely running errands secretly designed to foster our pleasure centers. So patience with sense contacts means to take those things for what they’re worth, no more and no less, and find ways to take breaks whenever possible. How to do this will be taught in depth in later chapters. What is said in this verse is a perfect example of a basic scientific formula that has been misconstrued over time as religious dogma. The myriad Gita commentaries are full of such misunderstandings, and we’ll root them out wherever we can in this study.


15)         That human indeed of firm mind who is unaffected by these, equal-minded in joy as well as pain—-he is destined for immortality.


         Interesting…. Can it be true that all that’s required to obtain immortality is to withdraw from focus on the senses? That’s too easy!

         Actually, coming to equal-mindedness is not as simple as it sounds. It is called samadhi in Sanskrit, and is ever associated with advanced states of absorption in meditation. We could also think of a mathematician engrossed in a complex problem, an artist shrugging off bodily feelings to concentrate on the project at hand, or a writer who is wholly absorbed in the story she is weaving. Scientists, mystics and artists know that when you give yourself totally to your project, amazing things can and do happen. Inspiration rises up from the depths to reveal new pathways and solve riddles.

         The use of immortality here seems somewhat excessive; perhaps it is a bit of hyperbole. Krishna has already asserted in verse 12 that we are all immortal, and he will soon make the point that the eternal unitive state he is describing is not accessible as a product of any particular set of actions or attitudes. Immortality, by the way, doesn’t necessarily mean living forever, which is the materialistic interpretation. It indicates the global perspective of higher consciousness, as opposed to the limited, or mortal, outlook of ordinary consciousness. When we are raised up out of our tomb of ego fixations to a universal or absolute vision, we have become immortal in that sense.

         This short section at the very beginning of Krishna’s teaching, which culminates in the next verse, deals with sorting out the real from the unreal, also known as the lasting from the temporary. A disciple cannot get anywhere until these two aspects are clearly distinguished. The temporary side of life is comprised of things that die, and the eternal is that which persists. Immortality is thus used here in that sense: it is a natural result of interest being redirected from the things that are born and die to the things that do not.

         The most practical way of interpreting these last two verses is that oppressive circumstances are what we should endure, not all circumstances. This is directly related to Arjuna’s quandary on the symbolic battlefield (don’t try this on an actual battlefield!). All through our life things happen to impede our progress and interfere with our ability to concentrate. Trivial diversions, social obligations, mundane necessities: I’m not going to list them all, you should be perfectly familiar with most of them yourself. If we thrust them violently away we create a countermovement that takes its direction from the oppressive circumstances themselves. Of course, if we welcome them we won’t even have begun our spiritual journey. The yoga of the Gita counsels us to not embrace them or resist them, but to endure them with a neutral openness. By not giving them any additional energy they will lose their grip on us the fastest. And when they do we are left in peace, with clarity of mind, destined for immortality as it were.


16)         What is unreal cannot have being, and non-being cannot be real; the conclusion in regard to both these has been known to philosophers.


         Religious neophytes often make a lot of noise over whether other people “believe” or not. You must be a “true believer” to be among the saved. This verse points out a simple truth that such beginners have overlooked. Krishna might be asking: “If a thing exists, does not believing in it make it cease to exist? On the other hand, if something doesn’t exist, does believing in it make it come into being?” Certainly there is an operational existence for such false beliefs insofar as they motivate behavior, but the philosopher will not be fooled. In other words, fear of an imaginary God may make a person behave according to an established code of conduct, but it’s a pathetic and unsatisfying motivator all the same. Krishna wants us to act as free human beings, and would never stoop to such lowbrow pressure tactics.

         Either something exists or it doesn’t. To an Indian philosopher, for a thing to exist it must persist forever, and if it doesn’t persist it’s evidence that it doesn’t truly exist. Its existence is mere appearance. The search for lasting value in a world of temporal flux is the story of the spiritual quest.

         Since the root of virtually all conflict is belief, the implications of this verse are staggering. This simple understanding mitigates aggression and supports peaceful and harmonious interaction with others, regardless of their beliefs.

         When people ask if you believe in God, what they’re really saying is “Do you believe in a very large angry parent-figure who will punish you eternally if you don’t comply with our (my) way of interpreting events?” Because we learned very early in life that we don’t have a say, that other people make the important decisions, we’ve learned to defer our dharma to outside “authorities.” Religious and political leaders more or less consciously assume the role of surrogate parents to provide the expected discipline and not coincidentally pocket the fee. Trusting souls follow the well-intentioned training of their childhood and play right into the hands of these betrayers of trust. Few are the leaders, and fewer still their followers, who say, with Krishna, “Follow your intuitive promptings based on all you’ve learned, and act in accordance with your own best understanding, for this is the true light of the world. Learn to heed your inner voice, because it’s the voice of God sounding within you.”

         This verse is usually “fixed” by commentators to read something like “What is unreal cannot have being, and what is real cannot ever cease being.” The translation by Nataraja Guru above is technically correct and equally symmetrical.

         Without pounding this to death, it is safe to say that the philosophic notion here is that reality is eternal, while unreality can never be. Keeping these separate is one main thrust of Samkhyan thought.

         Verse 16 closes the first natural section of Krishna’s teaching. It is related to the previous verses in that much of our oppression comes from unreal difficulties stemming from our confusion or misunderstanding, and if we endure these without feeding them they tend to fade away of their own accord, as long as we’re intent on growing away from them. Real problems obviously need to be addressed more directly. Sorting out the real from the unreal is one of the key building blocks of a spiritual way of life. This is where discrimination comes in. It takes a keen intelligence, and often requires help from an outsider like a close friend, therapist or guru, since we are habituated to many false notions to the point we believe them to be true. Constructing a whole new outlook based on false premises should make the seeker shudder. We must be cautious not to build our castles on sand, but dig down toward bedrock certainty. And it must be our own certainty. If we are unsure and so adopt the beliefs of someone else because they seem convinced, we are asking for very big trouble, as any former cult member will attest.

         The word translated as philosopher here means literally a knower or seer of first principles. We could say apropos of the above that a veritable philosopher is someone who has dug down to their own bedrock certitude.


17)         Know That to be indestructible by which all this is pervaded. None can bring about the destruction of This that knows no decrease.


         This verse and the next form a matched pair, in which Krishna presents the age old philosophical polarity of the one and the many, also described as the transcendent and the immanent, the general and the specific and so on. In the present instance we are looking at the Absolute on the one hand and manifestation on the other. The former is eternal while the latter is temporary. The Samkhyan system being enunciated by Krishna calls these purusha (spirit) and prakriti (nature).

         A familiar example of this primary duality is the triangle. There is a general triangle existing as a concept or idea that is ever present. When we draw a triangle on paper we have made a specific example of a triangle, and when we shred the paper it is destroyed. The destruction of the specific triangle does not affect the general triangle in the least. Thousands of triangles are discarded every day, as structural members in buildings, chalk on blackboards, mechanical drafts, and even accidental arrangements of random objects, but it is impossible to put an end to the conceptual triangle. It is eternal.

         The Absolute, often referred to simply as That, is likewise the general form of life or consciousness from which specific instances are derived. When our life begins or comes to an end, the Absolute is no more affected than the ideal triangle. When the Bible says that man is made in God’s image, this is how the phrase can be comfortably accepted by philosophers.

         Aristotle argued that there were only specific instances, and that no general form exists anywhere. He is the best-known grandfather of those who insist on taking everything in isolation, without reference to a unifying ground. Such isolation divests separate objects from any meaningful connection to the whole of which they are—-or may be—-a part. Krishna will argue in the following verse that awareness of the dialectical connection between the part and the whole is precisely what provides meaning, and therefore a reason to live. What we do is connected to everything else, and therefore affects everything else. Each of us is one of the infinite sources of impact on the world as a whole. Contemplating the sea of interrelated causes and effects provides endless delight and stimulation of deeper understanding.

         How often are philosophers of isolated materialism found to be both depressed and depressing? If life and its elements are stripped of meaning, why even bother to go on? But if it’s “right” that nothing has meaning, why does all the rest of creation hum along sans depression? It is equally or more right that everything does matter, and is neither isolated nor purely material. Realizing this should instantly restore our natural drive and zest for living. We matter, and what we do matters. Our value may be invisible to everyone else, but we should know it for ourselves.


18)         These bodies (however) of the everlasting indestructible and undefinable embodied One are spoken of as having an end. Therefore go on with the battle, O Arjuna.


         Now Krishna presents the “many” side of the one and the many dichotomy. He knows that an integral vision of how individuals relate to the totality will lift Arjuna out of his confusion and restore his mental health. As we move away from horizontal dualism toward vertical unity in the course of the Gita, the tragic gulf dividing spirit and matter will be effaced.

         Far too many commentators take Krishna’s last sentence as an exhortation to literally fight. This is absurd. We are in a psychodrama in the Gita, not an actual war. Krishna is using this phrase to urge Arjuna to return to participation with life. Yes, he is a warrior in a war, but the juxtaposition of a righteous warrior and a righteous war is so limited as to be almost nonexistent. A general meaning is intended here. When we become exhausted by “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” our mentor might urge us along the lines of “pick yourself up and get back in there!” We have to pull ourselves together so we can go back in the game. Frank Sinatra sang, in That’s Life of all things,


Each time I find myself  

flat on my face

I pick myself up

and get back in the race.[1]


Is this evidence that the Gita was known in Las Vegas in the 1960s? The last verse of the same song includes the line “Many times I thought of cuttin’ out but my heart won’t buy it.” It’s definitely the same idea.

         The meaning of the verse is that precisely because things change, having a beginning and an end, we can engage with them and improve them. We have zero impact on the unchanging Absolute, but its temporary expressions demand our involvement.

         What is confusing to Arjuna here at the outset isn’t confusing to holistic philosophers. After Krishna shows him how to visualize his predicament, he should be able to leap back into the fray. For him this means picking up his bow, but not for you, I warrant. For you it means something more appropriate to who you are. Say you’ve cut off an old friend because of a disagreement or are furious and not speaking to your spouse. Maybe you’ve sworn to never listen to anything your boss tells you ever again. The advice is to pull yourself together and reestablish contact. You are sulking because your feelings were hurt. But you are supposed to be equal minded and not lose your balance. Once you see both sides of the issue you can get over the pain. Then it is your duty to reach out to the other person, who is also nursing their own wounds. Continuing to stonewall means the death of many healthy possibilities. Reopening doors means letting the fresh air in once again. A wise person can always make the first move toward reconciliation because they refuse to be hampered by their childish feelings and personal preferences.

         Or you are looking for work. You get home after a day of frustrating interviews and curt dismissals, and you are exhausted and depressed. There doesn’t seem to be any hope. You could very easily start drinking heavily or veg out to the TV, either of which would allow the state of negativity you are in to continue unabated. The Gita’s advice is to spend some time regaining your balance, coming back to yourself after relating to dead ends all day. Think of something positive about yourself or do something constructive to counterbalance the day’s negative feedback. Once you are harmonized again, you will be ready to make a fresh start in the morning.

         This problem vexes nations as much as individuals. In the short run it is easier to fire weapons at your perceived enemy, but in the long run this degenerates into an all-too familiar disaster. It is infinitely better to “swallow your pride” so you can negotiate with insight into all parties’ points of view.

         In all these situations, realizing that you and the other side have common interests and can mutually either help or hinder each other provides all the impetus needed for a healthy engagement with whatever is happening.


19)         He who thinks of This as the killer, and he who thinks of This as killed—-both these know not. This does not kill, is not killed.


         Having distinguished the indestructible from the destructible, a long series of verses is provided to describe the former. It begins with a negative: what you see is not the Absolute. You see things that affect other things, and that are affected themselves. The Absolute is beyond that arena. If you are going to seek it, don’t look for it as a surface phenomenon. In particular, don’t imagine that you can rearrange the world in a certain way that will magically reveal it. The Absolute is completely independent of temporal existence, while mysteriously supporting it also. Neophytes often imagine that they merely have to redirect their ordinary thinking to become realized, and that does have some value, but full realization requires a quantum leap out of all conceptual frameworks.

         This and the next verse are lifted directly from the Katha Upanishad, which has a similar flavor to the Gita throughout, especially Yama’s (Death’s) instruction to his disciple Nachiketas. This is Katha 2.19.


20)         This is neither born nor does This die, nor, having once come into being, cease to become any more: unborn, perpetual, eternal is This Ancient One. It is not killed on the killing of the body.


         This is the same as Katha Upanishad 2.18. The two verses must have been carried over because they fit the discussion so well, are dialectically structured, and beautifully expressed to boot. There isn’t much elucidation needed, either. They are perfectly clear.

         The mystery of a simultaneously detached and involved Cause permeates all philosophical and spiritual contemplation. The ancient Indians posited three rotating principles of creation, sustenance and destruction, and named them Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. Somehow they emerged from the primal unmanifested Absolute to begin the play of existence, and they will continue to create, maintain and destroy as long as the universe lasts. Things have to go away eventually or we would have a static universe, forever frozen, filled up with stuff. Therefore the proper philosophic attitude is “Oh great, that’s over! Now something else will come along.” You might cherish the memories for a little while, but don’t let mourning impede your embrace of the ever-new flow.

         This is Krishna’s first use of the exalted meter of eleven syllables per line, the equivalent of underlining the verse for special notice. Poetic though it is, it may just be due to its being lifted from the earlier Upanishad.


21)         About him who knows This as the indestructible, the everlasting, the unborn, never-decreasing one—-of such a person how could the questions arise “whose death he causes,” “whom he kills,” O Arjuna?


         Translated thus these two are the same question. The intent must be “who is the killer?” and “who is killed?”

         A rhetorical question artfully presents one of the classic elements of Indian philosophy. As individuals, we come to believe that we are the knower, the enjoyer and the doer of actions. We are “in charge.” These are highly dualistic beliefs. There is I and the things I know, I and the things I enjoy, and I and the things I do, kept separate from all the things I don’t know, enjoy or do. As we examine the mysteries of life more closely, this duality dissolves. We no longer see ourselves as isolated actors, we are integral parts of one harmonious whole. The new awareness is that there is knowledge, enjoyment and action, all unfolding as the natural creative expression of the universe, in which we are privileged to participate. Our conscious mind weighs in only at the very end of the process, as scientific observation has confirmed. A lot of processing goes on in our unconscious before the final product arrives in our awareness and we imagine we have just thought of something.

         Krishna is here showing the way to this unitive realization. We are to come to know the Absolute, and he even provides identifying qualities to guide our search. It is unborn, everlasting, and not subject to decrease. That pretty much rules out everything we perceive with our senses, at the very least.

         The “standard interpretation” is that Krishna is urging Arjuna to not pay attention to the impact of his actions, so he can become a mindless killing machine. This is where the literalists give up and go somewhere else. But look more closely: the key is to first know This. On the face of This, beings are continually being born and dying, and we can get severely upset by it when our loved ones leave us. The antidote to despair is to know the ocean from which the wave arises. Then instead of lamenting the death of the wave, we can relish each new event as it rises up, breaks, and sweeps toward the shore.

         Once again, we are hearing the standard argument of rationalism in the time the Gita was set down, and not the final assessment. In the final analysis Krishna will extol virtues like non-hurting, compassion, kindness and thoughtfulness, and rate “disregarding consequences” as a serious fault. However he does echo this verse in XVIII, 17, which says, “He who is free from ego-sense, whose intelligence is unaffected, though he kills these people, he neither kills nor is bound.” If you are stumped here, skip ahead and read that commentary and I think you will be satisfied.


22)         As a man casting off his worn-out garments assumes others that are new, likewise casting off bodies that are worn-out, the embodied One takes to others that are new.


         This and a number of other verses in the Gita address various notions of reincarnation. Nataraja Guru cautions us to not adopt any puerile (childish) beliefs on the basis of any one of them in isolation. We will examine reincarnation in some detail later in the work. Already here, though, the first image from verse 13 is upgraded to the Absolute being what reincarnates, rather than a personal soul. We have begun our rise out of individuality toward universal wholeness.

         The problem with the idea of reincarnation from a spiritual standpoint is that in the hands of the ego it can become yet another excuse to avoid facing up to what we need to deal with. The ultimate procrastination is to imagine “I’ll get to it next lifetime.” Krishna’s exhortations to fight are meant to press us to cope with things now. In spiritual life we need to sweep away the multitude of prevarications we are capable of posing and open up to the opportunity that has been flung at our feet.

         I would like to suggest another interpretation of this verse more appealing to common sense: it is speaking of stages of the present life, and not a series of separate lives.

         Our unitive ‘I’ sense persists throughout our entire life as a steady vantage point, intimately familiar, with which we wholly identify. If we think that this spark of awareness comes from the flame of the Absolute, we can call it the embodied One, or Embodied One. It’s just a fancy name for consciousness.

         All through life this spark of awareness passes through different stages, consisting of discrete definitions of the world, if you will. The child sees things one way, the youth has another cant, and young and old adults have their mindsets as well. There is continuous change but also distinct steps that can be identified. While it may seem to us that we grow and change through our personal mental processes, these stages are also integral to our natural unfoldment, and more or less hardwired into the system. We don’t let go of one until it no longer suits our understanding, but when we do it’s exactly like throwing away the old clothes we used to wear and trying on a new set. And like bubbleheaded consumers on a shopping spree, we often discard the old outfit with a vengeance and rush eagerly to don the new one, which is why recent religious converts and teenagers can be so obnoxious. Others of us will continue wearing our favorite garb even when it no longer fits or is thoroughly worn out.

         Moreover, clothes are like attitudes in that they are purely superficial. While dressing up our personas to impress others, they have minimal effect on the core of our psyches. If we grasped this, we would be far less inclined to fight over ideas, any more than we fight over fashion statements. Now we can discern a valuable spiritual lesson in the present verse: Once we realize our ideas are no longer fitting, we should trade them in for a new outfit.

         Interestingly, right after writing this idea I heard an excerpt from E. E. Cummings’ A Fairytale: “People have different opinions, probably, or neckties….” It was a confirmation from the surroundings.

         The image of this verse is a lovely way to visualize how we pass through different phases in our life, and could teach us compassion and tolerance if we take it in this sense. The exalted meter of extra long lines occurs again here, tipping us off that there’s more than meets the eye in the content.


23)         Weapons do not cut This, fire does not burn This, and water does not wet This; wind does not dry This:


         This and the next verse form a symmetrical pair. They continue the description of the Absolute as being beyond any possible effects caused by events within creation. Oddly enough, no commentary that I have yet encountered has done justice to their symbolism.

         The dialectical presentation is again worthy of note. Verse 23 presents intentionality from the side of creation, and verse 24 presents the reciprocal action from the perspective of the Absolute. Weapons don’t cut this and it is uncuttable, fire doesn’t burn it and it’s unburnable, and so on. Interesting, but there must be something more being transmitted to Arjuna here. There is. This is shorthand for an entire cosmogony.

         The ancients had four or actually five categories of nature, namely earth, water, fire, air and space. (These correspond to the modern solid, liquid, energy, gas and space.) When we think of weapons as being solid like earth and wind being the moving form of air, with fire and water mentioned explicitly, we have the first four presented here. Less well known is that these symbolize aspects of the psyche. Earth symbolizes the physical body; water, the emotions; fire, linear thought, in connection with mental digestion and heating up of the system; and air, the vital pranas or energies, associated with intuitive, nonlinear thought. The fifth, the quintessence, is ether or space, that which makes room for everything to exist. Beyond these are two more realms, consciousness as the sixth and the Absolute itself as the seventh, but these are not brought in here. They are symbolized elsewhere by things like sun and moon, day and night, or light and darkness.

         The elements are also related to the bodily chakras, the somatic energy centers. The earth element is based in the muladhara, the first chakra, near the place where solid waste leaves the body. The second chakra is the watery svadhisthana, near the genitals, where water passes from the body. The genitals and other hormone producers are the source of many of our feelings and emotions, our attractions and repulsions. The third chakra, manipura, is of fire, and is located near the stomach, at the solar plexus. Like digestion, fire consumes fuel and gives off light and warmth, in a similar fashion to ordinary mentation that absorbs sensory input and makes “sense” out of it. The fourth chakra, anahata, is located near the heart, associated with air and the lungs, where vital energy enters the system. Breath is the essence of life. The fifth chakra is the visuddhi, located in the throat and associated with speech and words. Communication begins the gradual evolution of transcendence in the individual by reaching out through space to other beings. The sixth, ajna, the “third eye,” is the seat of consciousness and wisdom; and the seventh, at the fontanels on top of the head, the sahasrara or thousand petaled lotus of light, is the “exit” where the individual and the Absolute conjoin.

         Meditating on how all these levels interpenetrate each other promotes an appreciation of the unity of all things. The development of the individual generally follows the course of the chakras, beginning with physical development in infancy followed by the exploration of feelings. Next is development of the intellect, followed by the opening up to intuition, to teachings from the unconscious. At this stage the individual is capable of great clarity in communication with fellow beings, and the embrace of larger groups. Healthy development culminates in wisdom, which leads to reconnection with the Absolute. Certainly all the levels overlap and complement each other; it’s not just one level being developed and then the next. All are present all the time, but there is also a general progression and expansion as well.

         This is the barest sketch of a complex and very interesting system of interpreting the world and the psyche. Most important for our modern understanding is that in it creation occurs from the top down: our ground is the Absolute, which arouses consciousness, and then space, air, fire, water, and finally earth are progressively created. The universe is not built up from particles, it emerges from consciousness and precipitates outwards and downwards. Our return journey is up from the heaviest element to the lightest, as we evolve back toward greater and greater consciousness and unity with the Absolute.

         We can presume that Krishna spent several weeks introducing this science to Arjuna, and the reporter on the scene summarized the whole bit with verses 23 and 24. In those days this was familiar territory, hardly needing to be spelled out. And this is preliminary stuff after all: the Gita is rushing toward even more subtle and important matters in the upcoming chapters.


24)         Indeed it is uncleavable; It is non-inflammable; It is unwettable and non-dryable also—everlasting, all-pervading, stable, immobile; It is eternal.


         The same system is hereby presented from the opposite side, that of purusha instead of prakriti, maintaining the symmetry.

         We slip into bondage because we’re actively suppressing our inner nature, our dharma. Very central to this suppression is our role in society. We don the mask of our persona to protect ourselves from the hostile forces outside us, never realizing that the winds of adverse criticism cannot upset our real self, the fire of hostility and anger cannot burn it, etc. Identification with the Absolute makes us fearless, because who we really are cannot be destroyed. Krishna makes this point explicitly in the next verse.

         This doesn’t just mean we have to be some superhero that bullets bounce off of, or some saint wholly detached from the surroundings. When we become grounded in our essential self, life is appreciated and enjoyed to the utmost, but its ups and downs don’t determine our state of mind. We are already in a great place, and it’s not a fool’s paradise that can be wiped out by circumstances. It’s real, well established on every level.

         Our core ground is perfectly stable, and this is what Arjuna is being asked to connect himself with. Physical damage does not have to hurt the psyche, even if it injures the body. Insults to our intelligence or our ego burn like fire, but we have to shrug them off, after gleaning whatever kernel of truth they convey. If we are primarily identified with the Absolute and not our ego, whatever people say about us is perfectly all right. Emotional shocks are like being doused with a bucket of ice water, but we can bounce back quickly from them if we are not overly attached to the feelings (or their objects) involved. And the adverse winds of fate or public opinion, daunting as they are, have to been seen as pertaining to our lower nature only. Our higher nature transcends all of these misfortunes. From this very practical angle, affiliation with the Absolute is our best defense against life’s periodic tragedies.

         For those who can not or will not imagine an immaterial spirit at your core, you can picture the world in its microcosmic aspect, as an essentially eternal cloud of atomic and subatomic particles. It is easy to visualize that a knife passes through the cloud without causing the least damage, the wetness of water is not even perceptible at this level, and so on. A few atoms might swirl around when things happen, but they remain the same in toto. The discovery of the invisible microcosm by science is probably the closest analogue we have to what the ancients were getting at.


25)         It is undefined, unthinkable is It, as non-subject to change is It spoken of: therefore, knowing It as such, there is no reason for you to feel sorry for It.


         We enter a section devoted to addressing Arjuna exactly at the level of his stated confusion. Krishna isn’t presenting the highest teachings, he is only parrying the commonplace notions that are confusing to his disciple. This is the second stage of instruction, where the guru takes an opposing position to everything the disciple brings up in order to tame the ego and instigate fresh thinking. While perhaps philosophically less rigorous than usual for the Gita, it is very beautiful to see the artful way these subtleties are dealt with.

         Why should you feel sorry for something that cannot be affected by anything, that cannot change? Quite the reverse, one should be rapturous in its presence. The only reason we aren’t is that we are thinking of it, speaking of it and defining it in limiting ways, all of which are something other than it. If they were it, we would be overwhelmed, so we can tell by our cold-blooded interpretations that we are off the mark.

         This awareness is much more important than it sounds. Neophytes particularly tend to imagine they are in possession of realized knowledge when it is nothing more than a set of interesting and persuasive secondhand ideas. They badger others to try to bring them on board their sinking ship, and become angry when their targets appear to prefer some other set of secondhand ideas. The Absolute doesn’t care what anybody thinks—or even what anybody does. Creation has a reflexive symmetry which metes out exactly what each person puts into it, albeit subtly and invisibly. It is virtually impossible to trace the sympathetic reactions of the plenum—what Jung called the Pleroma—since they overlap with unbelievable complexity, but humans try to do it all the time. Since there is no obvious tit for tat, all attempts to draw connections are misleading. Krishna will soon be directing Arjuna to the highest conception, which is capable of transcending the dual reciprocity inherent in the universe. Without bringing that kind of yogic rigor to bear, we should be extremely circumspect about asserting that X caused Y. Usually our pronouncements nothing more than evidence of our prejudices.

         Appending the phrase “Is It spoken of,” averts a logical conundrum of Krishna defining something undefinable and causing Arjuna to think of something unthinkable. Wriggling out of the overarching paradoxical situation requires a slight concession to duality so that wisdom transmission can take place.


26)         Or again if you should hold This to be constantly ever-born or as constantly ever-dying, even then you have no reason to regret it.


         Whichever way we look at life it should thrill us, not upset us as Arjuna has been. Here we have the flip side of the notion of the eternal Absolute: the belief that everything is just a temporary accident occurring in a meaningless void. When you come right down to it, that’s about as astounding and improbable as a coherently informed universe. Either way, the fact that we have come to exist is a mind-blowing miracle.

         So even if you are a staunch materialist and absolutely refuse to accept the idea of the Absolute, there is no reason to be sad. Everything comes to an end, and with people the end is usually unexpected. An intelligent person should expect such things to happen. The overall wheel of life rolls on, and is just as breathtaking from any perspective. Clinging to what has passed away only truncates your own life. The regret stems from feeling you have lost something, but if you are not dependent then you really haven’t lost anything.

         Our life is supremely wonderful and very short. To waste any time at all moping about in sadness is a great tragedy. We should be making every minute count, appreciating everything and regretting nothing.


27)         In respect of anyone born, death is certain, and certain is birth for anyone dead; therefore, regarding something inevitable, you have no reason to feel any regret.


         Krishna is elaborating the previous two verses, and combining their different ideas. A materialist believes the first half, and a holistic thinker believes both halves. Krishna isn’t saying that one or the other is right, he is just asserting that there is no reason to be unhappy no matter how you look at things.

         One implication of the last part is that if something is avoidable, then we are justified in taking action to deal with it. The Gita’s message is not about remaining passive or closed down while events happen to you, but about how to become a fully awakened participant. It sounds simple enough, but it takes a major, determined effort to bring it about.


28)         Beings have an unmanifested origin and manifested middle states, and again unmanifested terminations. Where is room for plaint herein?


         A seeker of truth needs to reduce complex appearances to their essence, to make them more comprehensible. Here the guru offers an unfiltered overview of the broad sweep of life to a disciple who hasn’t yet been able to see the forest for the trees.

         Our plight, if you will, is very simple. We are in a manifested state in the present, and any states before our birth and after our death are unknown to us. We can speculate until we are blue in the face—-and many people do, even pretending to certitude about such matters—-but they will forever remain unknown pending our arrival. Therefore they are a distraction from right living in the present. We may act a certain way because we imagine it will get us something in an afterlife, not necessarily because it is meaningful now. This can only vitiate our engagement in this life, which is the only thing we can begin to know for certain.

         Religious tales of heavenly afterlives cause people to tolerate subhuman conditions and perform all sorts of unnatural acts, as they imagine all will be magically set right in the distant future. This is the opiate of the people Karl Marx speaks of, promoting tolerance of suffering in place of taking corrective action. The Gita, by contrast, teaches unitive action, which attends to present problems as they arise and fixes them. This is far healthier in both the short and long run, and gives us plenty to do so we will never be bored.

         It is well known that the threat of hell is used as a motivational device to force the faithful to meekly follow draconian rules and financially support a priestly caste. This is also discountenanced by Krishna.

         This seemingly simple verse presents another basic building block of a spiritual edifice. All hypothetical beliefs are to be cast in the fire of wisdom and burned to ashes, to reveal the hidden core of what is really real, which is that which does not turn to ashes when put to the torch. Speculation about future heavens and hells may be amusing, but it is certainly nonproductive in the wisdom context.

         When people are insistent about the afterlife, or unable to stop dwelling on it, it indicates disassociation with the present life. There are unhappy circumstances which need to be addressed, and they would rather not. In other words, it is escapism, pure and simple. Any guru worth their salt will redirect the disciple’s attention to the here and now, which is the proper place to begin.

         As Robert Frost says in his poem Birches, “Earth’s the right place for love / I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.”


29)         A certain person sees This as a wonder, likewise another speaks about This as a wonder. Another hears of It even as a wonder, but even hearing no one understands This at all.


         The Absolute is not only beyond nature, it is beyond our understanding. That’s what defines a mystery, described at this stage as a wonder. In IX, 4 and 5, Krishna further elaborates this ultimate mystery with some mutually contradictory assertions.

         The state of wonder is conducive to contemplation, while the attitude that you already know everything pretty much slams the door on further investigations. Science seeks certitude, as it should, but it can never arrive, because the mystery is unattainable. Every static picture is limited, and the Absolute is unlimited. Even within creation itself there is always something more to learn. This is a healthy attitude with which to open up the mind.

         The Gita is filled with graded series, and this is a less obvious one. Seeing is our most beguiling sense (this chapter’s verse 69 claims that what we see is “night”), yet vision reveals only surfaces. Speech comes from thought and thus is much deeper than sight, while hearing can carry things like wisdom discourse and music into the mind. It is the deepest sense of all, but senses, no matter how refined, do not attain the Absolute.

         Seeing has been equated with knowing since the dawn of history, and since the Absolute is invisible that is certainly the sense meant here: that we can never see it. Some people know it is a mystery, but that doesn’t bring them an experience of anything. Lots of people talk about it, but again, it’s just hot air passing over vocal cords. No experience of the Absolute will come from saying words. And plenty of people hear about it from other people or read about it in books. Christianity especially makes a lot of noise around “Have you heard the news?” But news is always secondhand information. It might get you to join a group but it will not provide a direct experience of the Absolute, whether it’s called God or anything else.

         Religious bans against idolatry or even saying the name of God stem from the same realization as this verse expresses. When you say ‘God’ you are referring to a set of concepts, and the reality of God is anything but a set of concepts. Idols substitute images as the idea of God. Sets of concepts or images become outmoded over time, but That Which sustains the whole universe can never go out of date, or the whole shebang would give up the ghost.

         Like the Absolute, music is intangible and ineffable, a wonder. If we take it for granted and believe we know it, it’s like explaining music scientifically in terms of vibrational frequencies striking the ear drum, which translates them into nerve impulses that register in the brain. MRI studies demonstrate that many different areas of the brain are excited by music. All very interesting, but it doesn’t convey what music is in the least. And plenty of us talk about music, and have lots of nuanced opinions about it, but again that is something other than music. Actually hearing music is a very immediate and transformative experience, but we still cannot say we understand it. To do so would be highly presumptuous. The most we can say is that we have experienced a handful of instances of it, but there is obviously much more where that came from. The possibilities of musical expression are infinite.

         Thus it would even be possible for Krishna to have said “Even experiencing no one understand it at all.” The direct experience of anything is so overwhelming as to defy description, and consequent understanding. Direct experience is extremely rare for human beings, who mitigate their experiences with all sorts of concepts and analogies. Conceptualizing isn’t all bad, except that we tend to lose contact with experience and have nothing left but the concepts, and this makes for a hollow life, devoid of meaningful content. Direct experience is the content that a spiritual search attempts to restore. Arjuna is heading for one of his own in Chapter XI, and then will spend the rest of the work struggling to understand it.

         All this being said, the Gita is an attempt to transcend the limitations of words and induce a unitive experience in the listener. It offers the technique of intelligently equalizing opposites, known as yoga, to achieve what linear thinking never could. It easily ranks as one of the best attempts in the history of the human race, and we can leave it at that.

         Not surprisingly, this stirringly beautiful verse is expressed in the exalted meter.


30)         This embodied One within the bodies of all is ever immune to killing, Arjuna. Therefore in respect of any being you have no reason for regretting.


         Verse 30 ends the section that began with verse 17, exploring the duality of spirit and matter. This is still very preliminary material. It establishes a sound mental framework based on common sense, on which to set Arjuna’s path on a course for the highest realization. Over the course of the Gita, duality will be first resolved in unity and then reappear steeped in that unity, purified and justified, to reenter the world of give and take.

         Throughout the Gita we should be on our guard to not visualize the Absolute as something external. It is our very self, our inmost truth. While we may fear death, something in us is unmoved by it. We call that eternally steady place in our core the Absolute, for lack of a better term.

         Krishna is basically saying that good and bad things happen to everyone, so while we should aim to minimize the pain we cause, we don’t need to immobilize ourselves with guilt. Humans have the chance to learn from everything that happens to them, so long as they don’t get stuck in mental black holes.

         The disciple must be free of regrets in order to make the most of what is being offered by the teacher. Regrets are a way of clinging to the past, and the seeker of truth needs to be firmly grounded in the present. This transition was traditionally symbolized for a spiritual aspirant by the guru burning his clothes and hair, disposing of his effects, and handing him a simple cloth and a begging bowl to indicate his dependence of happenstance from moment to moment.

         Modern seekers can achieve the same state by realizing that they don’t have to tote their mental baggage around all the time. Once it has impelled any necessary changes in behavior, regret is an unnecessary weight that no longer serves any purpose. It comes from the ego trying to assert its importance in an unhealthy way. There are a large number of mental aberrations that could loosely be classed as forms of regret or clinging, and they must all be corrected at the very outset. This is no small task for most of us, because we can’t just ignore them or they continue to fester. They have to be actively rooted out. Once regrets are laid to rest, direct engagement with events as they occur is so exciting as to utterly absorb one’s interest. In fact excited engagement kicks in early on to assist the spiritualizing process once the ball gets rolling.


         Verses 31-38 make up a subsection where Krishna is saying, “Look, even if you reject all the myths that have been inculcated in you by society about who and what you are, you should still be a full participant in the game of life. Don’t permit the failings of others to become your downfall. You should fulfill your dharma, not abandon it.” Arjuna has abandoned faith in those myths and consequently lost his sense of direction, so his teacher will describe for him the logical conclusions a thinking person should draw. That’s also why Krishna mentions merit here: because it’s still part of the ordinary attitudes Arjuna is struggling with. Recall Arjuna’s direct request at the beginning of the chapter: “I ask you: that which is definitely more meritorious do indicate to me.”

         In Chapter II we are still very close to the actual world, where subjects and objects appear distinct. The Gita is kind enough to begin at the level of ordinary comprehension and build its argument from there. This is a part of the work where orthodox thinkers are filled with delight to find their religious beliefs supported. There is lots of delicious talk of duty and sin, not withstanding the Gita’s wholehearted refutation of these binding beliefs. Later on those commentators will have to mangle the Gita’s absolutist stand to fit it into the inadequate bed of their dualistic thinking.

         In this section especially we have to remember that Krishna is currently presenting the philosophy of rationalism, Samkhya. Or call it the ordinary state of mind. The Gita’s finalized position is wholly free from exhortations to follow prescribed patterns of behavior, and is stated in XVIII, 63: “Critically scrutinizing all, omitting nothing, do as you like.” As early as III, 17, we begin to hear the Gita’s true absolutism: “But for him who happens to be attached to the Self alone… there is nothing that he should do.” None of this present section is the Gita’s final opinion, it is an exposition of the prevailing attitudes of the day, and which are still largely in force in the twenty-first century.

         In keeping with the dualism of this early stage, the second half of the chapter will be a contrasting exposition of yoga. The generally physical and transactional orientation of this first half will be offset by the more mental and intuitive aspects of the second part.


31)         Further, having regard also for the pattern of behavior natural to you there is no reason for vacillation, for there could be nothing more meritorious than a war that is right for a true         fighter.


         Don’t forget to read between the lines! This isn’t just about a warrior in a war situation, even though Arjuna is one. All of us have our unique conflicts to attend to in the way most suited to our interests and talents. The generic version of this idea is that we learn and grow through resolving conflicts, though that doesn’t mean we should seek them out arbitrarily, either. The ones that come to us in the natural course of events, brought by the Tao so to speak, are where our work lies. Humans are always mucking about, following someone else’s path, reading instructions on how to be. The Gita would like us to realize that our path is always stretching out from our feet; in other words, the problems we need to deal with are the ones staring us right in the face.

         This is not a matter of mystical faith in some divine program. Each of us selects, mostly unconsciously, a tiny segment of the total vibrational world around us to interact with. There are many good reasons for this. I’m sure you’re familiar with Aldous Huxley’s theory of the brain as a reducing valve, whose job it is to limit the welter of stimuli around us to a small enough piece that we can deal with it coherently. That’s definitely one thing our brain does, and it’s no small feat. Unsolicited, it provides us a logical starting place for our investigations by weeding out less relevant information.

         It’s well nigh impossible to discover our unique values or abilities if we are merely trying to be an imitation of someone else’s idea of what we should be. A huge amount of struggle is expended in forcing ourselves to fit the prescribed mold, which in the flux of life is outdated almost as soon as it’s cast. Redirecting that intensity to spiritual goals that free us is one of the most exciting endeavors one can imagine.

         This is the first place that Krishna mentions a term central to Vedanta, dharma. Orthodox Hindus think of dharma as meaning religion or duty, ideas the Gita opposes quite strongly. In a spiritual context the word refers to one’s true inner nature when all the poisons and perversions from external forces are neutralized.

         Sri Aurobindo has defined dharma very well in his Essays on the Gita (pages 153-54):


Dharma in the Indian conception is not merely the good, the right, morality and justice, ethics; it is the whole government of all the relations of man with other beings, with Nature, with God, considered from the point of view of a divine principle working itself out in forms and laws of action, forms of the inner and outer life, orderings of relations of every kind in the world. Dharma (the word means ‘holding’ from the root dhri, to hold) is both that which we hold to and that which holds together our inner and outer activities. In its primary sense it means a fundamental law of our nature which secretly conditions all our activities, and in this sense each being, type, species, individual, group has its own dharma. Secondly, there is the divine nature which has to develop and manifest in us, and in this sense dharma is the law of the inner workings by which that grows in our being. Thirdly, there is the law by which we govern our outgoing thought and action and our relations with each other so as to help best both our own growth and that of the human race towards the divine ideal.

   Dharma is generally spoken of as something eternal and unchanging, and so it is in the fundamental principle, in the ideal, but in its forms it is continually changing and evolving, because man does not already possess the ideal or live it, but aspires more or less perfectly towards it, is growing towards its knowledge and practice.


         Most commentators think Arjuna’s duty is to get back into the battle as a fighting warrior. What is often overlooked is that the most important thing is that Arjuna turns to a guru for instruction. This is where all dharmas are leading. When we get to the point of wisdom instruction we are fulfilling the highest calling in life. After he instructs him, Krishna no longer tells Arjuna to fight in the war, he tells him to look carefully at everything and do what he wishes. That’s the general message for all of us. So the emphasis on fulfilling the duties of a warrior is seriously off the mark for the non-warriors among us. The point is to turn to truth, not to fulfill society’s expectations. These are quite at odds most of the time.

         Arjuna is, however, a warrior in a righteous war. A contemporary analogy for his situation would be a police sharpshooter called to shoot a mass murderer. It would be utterly absurd for the officer to shrink from the allotted task. Any mental reservations to performing what is required must be dealt with in advance. This does not mean that everyone should be ready to shoot people, because society only needs a few of that type. The rest of us have other fish to fry.

         We can’t do better than quote Guru Nitya Chaitanya Yati on dharma, from Therapy and Realization in the Bhagavad Gita:


In the Gita, Krishna wants Arjuna to know what his dharma is and how he should perform it. Implied in this is a revaluation of the value system to which man should conform, and of the proper functioning of those values in our life. For that, Krishna, as a teacher, is also doing what the psychologist is doing to his patient. The psychologist is not there to provide a plank for the patient to lean on which will always be held up by the therapist. Rather he should help him to stand on his own feet. That is possible only when the patient obtains an insight into his own problems, his own being. When he knows what he is and how he should function, he will be able to function by himself. The very basic attempt of a psychologist is to make the patient realize himself.

  If self-realization is the motive of the psychologist, why do we stop half way? Why don’t we push it all the way until the patient is no longer a patient but a student, and further, not a seeker but a seer? Krishna functions here not merely as a therapist, he offers much more than therapy. He educates his patient. His patient becomes illuminated. He is no longer simply a patient in relation to a psychologist – the seeker has become the seer.


32)         True warriors have reason to be happy, Arjuna, to have the chance of such a war presenting itself unsought before them as an open door to heaven.


         Most of the significant events of our lives arrive unexpectedly on our doorstep. Whether we accept or reject them determines the course of our life in no small measure. We usually imagine we are in control, but there is a tidal current in life that determines the overall context for the tiny amount we are actually able to have an effect on. On reflection we can see that the current is flowing toward evolving, toward greater consciousness and ability, greater opportunities for expression. Knowing this, we should embrace the “accidents” that come our way as being invitations to learn and grow.

         Be sure to read ‘seekers’ in place of ‘warriors’ here—-not to minimize the heroic nature of unitive contemplation. Arjuna is a warrior, but this is also about us.

         It is cause for celebration when we have refocused on our life enough so that meaningful problems are delivered to our laps. All we need to do is engage these situations and it’s like walking through an open door to heaven. Becoming centered in the life we’re blessed to be living is blissful in the extreme. Here we are, in heaven. Heaven and hell exist only in the here and now.

         How often people think, “I wish I could get out of this mess I’m in so I could have a chance to be really spiritual.” Or worse: “Life really sucks, but someday I’ll get to heaven and everything will be all right.” We want to walk away from our spouse who we’re fighting with, or our crummy job or whatever. So many fantasies to keep us immobilized! We give ourselves a cheap excuse to avoid working on what’s needed by hiding it behind the confusing bustle of the present, out of reach. The Gita is saying here that whatever comes to you is where to work. There is no “spiritual” ground somewhere else you need to travel to. There is nobody more spiritual than you are now. These are just ego tricks to derail your progress.

         Or perhaps the thought is “If only I had more time to practice, I could become spiritual.” Spirituality means at the minimum being actively engaged in your life. Not some particular kind of remote life, in a cave or an ashram, but yours right now. And while practice might have a spiritual component, this fantasy is a mental version of what Arjuna was doing at first on the battlefield, i.e. giving up.

         It is amazing how much resistance this idea engenders. We insist that circumstances prevent us from being happy! But why? Is it because we are afraid to be ourselves, or is it a learned attitude? We really need to look into it. Happiness will be found in everything around us when we give up the longing to escape.

         One of the ways we lose our dharma is by assuming that the important events in the world are happening elsewhere, that we don’t really matter but others do. What a bad joke! One of the many unfortunate byproducts of this idea is that we don’t bother to come to grips with the world around us, because it’s just some second rate life in an obscure neighborhood. Who cares? Pfft! WRONG! It’s the most important life you’ll ever have, and it won’t ever go away. But it won’t be much fun, either, until you participate more fully in it. So let other people worry about their bit. You’re busy wrestling with your own.

         We need to unburden ourselves of another whole panoply of wrong notions in order to reap the merit of fighting a “war” that is right for us, otherwise known as living our life. So few get to this point of fighting our own battles—the Gita calls it one in a thousand—because we’re so busy daydreaming about other people’s problems. We’re experts about what other people should do! Too bad they never take our advice…. The secret is, we have to take it first.


33)         If, on the other hand, you will not take to this battle which conforms to the requirements of righteousness, then thwarting what is consistent with your own nature and your good repute         you will become involved in evil.


         The righteous battle is, as always, staying awake and alive to the requirements of the present moment, so we can meet them with expertise. This should almost never involve killing, or indeed, rendering any kind of harm, though in rare instances it might.

         Here’s how to thwart your nature: watch TV, get drunk, get distracted, get busy. And so on, ad infinitum. We have become masters at thwarting our dharma and blending in to the social environment instead. Only when our internal dissociation becomes uncomfortable enough do we turn to a spiritual outlook to liberate ourselves.

         As hinted at above, when we get distracted by other people’s problems and hypothetical mind games we stifle our natural propensity to unfold and grow. We thwart our potential. Engaging in our own nature is eminently enjoyable, but it requires bravery, because it can be very much in conflict with external demands.

         The Gita is not peddling any program other than the divine adventure we naturally embody. Arjuna, like all of us, has lost touch with who he is, and needs to be brought back on track.

         You can almost hear the religious minded slavering over the mention of good and evil in this verse, but the horizontalized good and evil of religion is not countenanced by the Gita. There is no latter Day of Judgment. The evil is only of not allowing our life to unfold. It’s like damming a stream, and continuing to build the dam higher to prevent the water from ever escaping. Sooner or later something’s gotta give!

         Neglecting your spouse or dear friend as being an immovable source of oppression is an example of the evil spoken of. Almost everything can be worked out, but it takes effort and intelligence, and above all an ability to transcend your personal point of view. If you retreat into sulkiness and resentment, your relationship suffers (you lose your “good reputation”) and the situation becomes a prison of misery for both. Again, evil is not something later on and far away. It is the measure of unhappiness—both kinetic and potential—inherent in the present moment.

         Another example: Americans defer a vast amount of energy to their presidential elections. Instead of addressing their problems directly, they become immobilized by the hope that the next guy, the replacement for the current loathsome creature, will solve everything. Meanwhile civic problems become ever more desperate, because everybody is waiting for someone else to take care of them. By postponing useful action, hope can itself be an evil as powerful in its way as confusion or hatred.

         Rather than attending to things ourselves, we long for someone else to handle them the way mommy and daddy used to in the good old days before we grew up. Presidents and monarchs play into this foible, as do messianic religions. This is a much greater evil than one would at first imagine. We defer to exploiters and then wonder why we are exploited. Losing control of our lives may at first be relaxing, but later on it is scorching.

         The immediate pleasure of letting someone else run our life is enervating in the long run. By not finding our own calling, not taking care of our own business, we lose energy. Depression thrives where life interests are not being addressed. But when we are engaged, the natural, ebullient energy that we are made of comes back to us, enabling us to deal with everything with joie de vivre. So being our own master is not as daunting as it seems. In fact, it’s a tremendously enriching activity on all levels.


         A real evil—-if the term is to be used at all—-in negative withdrawal is that miscreants will not be shown the error of their ways. Whatever twisted attitude energized their position will appear to be confirmed by the withdrawal of the very person who could introduce justice into the situation. Thus their rapaciousness continues unchecked. This is exactly the situation on the battlefield of Kuruksetra. The Kauravas have been taking more and more of what rightfully belongs to Arjuna’s side of the family, and they don’t intend to stop. If Arjuna has any duty at all it is to stand up for fairness in the battle of life. Maintaining his “honor” with the enemy is valuable to the extent it furthers this.

         Have you ever been in an argument where you know you’re right, but the other side is so persistently aggressive that you decide to just give up and concede? At some point this may be the only option, at least temporarily. The false victor doesn’t just walk away smug and satisfied, he invariable derides and mocks you in a display of pure ego. Such venting can go on and on, even building in intensity as the “victor” senses a defenseless victim. It is highly dubious that this will serve any therapeutic purpose. It is more likely to confirm the egotist’s conceits. So the Gita’s recommendation is to shrug off personal feelings of pain and dishonor and stand up to the bully. This is a dialectic key to nonviolent action to combat oppression.


34)         Living beings will also pronounce a never-ending verdict of calumny on you, and to one used to honor, dishonor is worse than death.


         Krishna touches some purely transactional matters in this section, to demonstrate to Arjuna that denying his dharma and withdrawing from the conflict will result in a very poor outcome. When we fill our legitimate place in space with our wholehearted beingness, events go as well as can be, and when we abandon the field they go haywire.

         Bringing this up to date, when you don’t hold up your end of things your boss will get on your case, or your mother or your spouse will. Nowadays we call “never-ending calumny,” hassling or grief or nagging, and it can most certainly feel like a fate worse than death. No one should have to berate you to get you to do what you should be doing, and protesting that you’re busy meditating doesn’t usually get you off the hook!

         Doing things only because we are being harassed about them is certainly a poor way of action. It is most typical of teenagers who are confused or preoccupied about trivial matters, but most everyone has days like that. It would be far better to take care of our commitments swiftly, leaving us free to do what we want afterwards. Fewer commitments means more free time, but almost no one can get along completely without them and have all free time. Too bad!

         The insistence on honor is actually very odd, though few commentators seem to notice it. Later on (for instance, VI, 7, XII, 18 and XIV, 25) the Gita will speak of equalizing honor and dishonor and not letting them affect you. Take a look at XVII, 18: “That discipline which is practiced for gaining respect, honor, reverence, and for the sake of show, is named rajasic, changeful and insecure.”

         The essence of unitive action is to let it arise from the depths of the self, authentic to our deepest dedication. By contrast, honor implies we should base what we do on how it will be perceived by others, and how they will judge it. In other words, by seeking honor, dharma is converted from acting in tune with our true nature to behaving as we are supposed to by society. The Gita’s teaching is all about getting out from under that kind of pressure. It’s curious that so many commentators automatically stand up and salute honor, when it is tangential to the teaching at best, and extremely hostile at worst.

         Nataraja Guru believes (p. 698) that Krishna is trying to whip Arjuna out of his negative despondency with some heavy-handed exhortation here. He is still testing him to see if temporal rewards are enough to satisfy him.

         I sense this section contains more of the sly teasing with which Krishna began in verse 2. Why not try simple peer pressure and see if that will satisfy Arjuna? But to his credit, Arjuna refuses to be lured off course. He still insists on knowing everything he can from Krishna about how the world works. When he asked for instruction, he very eloquently demonstrated that he was not in the least interested in superficial matters such as honor.

         In verse 39, Krishna reveals that he is merely offering the Samkhya or rationalist take on Arjuna’s position at the moment. The first half of Chapter II basically lays the groundwork for the more penetrating science of Yoga in the second half and beyond, which is the Gita’s revaluation of ordinary thinking.


35)         The great car-generals will look upon you as quitting the battle from fear, and having been honorably looked upon by them you will be held in derision.


         Car means chariot here. Nowadays we might use terms like hot-shots or top dogs in place of car-generals. In the transactional realm, those in charge are unlikely to understand your confusion and unwillingness to do the simple tasks assigned to you. They will think of you as an inferior employee. Not too many people question the basic rules of social life, and those that do usually receive short shrift from those who cling to order and obedience as if they are divinely ordained rules of life. Then again, if you’re hired to do something, and after you sign on you refuse to do it, that’s another matter.

         Dishonor may not sound too painful, but it is surprisingly powerful. Alain de Botton has written an entire book called Status Anxiety, which explores how deeply dependent we are on other people’s opinions of us. Working our way to the state the Gita will eventually recommend, of equal-mindedness in honor and dishonor, is a tremendous, long-term accomplishment.

         What’s really being said here is the opposite of how it’s usually taken, because this is about a spiritual orientation above and beyond transactional concerns. Arjuna as a disciple must be prepared to act independently of outside opinion, and Krishna is testing him with the kinds of negative opinions he will encounter as a spiritually dedicated person. He is asking, Can you hold to truth when those around you despise you for it? Are you free from making psychological adjustments to coddle your friends and associates and get them off your case? Once again, only those hooked on orthodoxy could imagine that caving in to social pressure is the Gita’s final recommendation. We need to learn to stand up to mediocre opinions, to have enough faith in our own decisions to stick with them instead.

         The deepest spiritual instruction here is that you should give up the need to defend yourself against false accusations, of which there will be many in the life of any seeker of truth. Only the ego wants to defend itself: the spirit is at ease, and content with itself. When people hurl calumny on you, you can examine your hurt feelings and your urges to respond in kind, realize that they are merely the ego’s game, and discard them. Accepting criticism without being humiliated and getting defensive is another excellent achievement of the truth seeker.


36)         Those against you will speak of you in unspeakable terms, scorning your ability; what pain could there be keener than this?


         As nearly always in the Gita, the least important element in a series is given last, and here it is. If we withdraw from the conflict, others will not understand our position and will heap scorn on us. This is painful. Interestingly, in verse 38 the Gita’s dialectic recommendation is reiterated: treat pleasure and pain equally and stand above them. You have to admit the importance of pain is seriously undermined by that statement. Elsewhere dishonor is to be treated together with honor (see for instance XII, 18). Clearly, such opinions of others should have no effect on us. Only when we’re stuck in our personal ego can these things matter to us. Krishna is giving an early test of Arjuna’s understanding.

         In Love and Blessings, p. 173, Nitya describes an incident where his guru emulated Krishna in this verse, and went so far as to provide the insults himself. It occasioned an explosive fight, and Nitya was storming off down the road:


Then Guru caught up with me and tenderly held my hand. “If you really are going, I can’t let you go scot-free. I should punish you.” I agreed, and held out my cheek like a martyr. He slapped me lightly twice. Like an ideal Christian I turned the other cheek, and he slapped me again. Then, in a prayerful voice full of benediction he said, “I am beating you so that the world will not beat you.”

         I was still determined to leave him, and I started to turn away. He held my hand with the utmost tenderness and said, “Wherever you go, always remember Narayana Guru’s words alapamatram akhilam (it’s all a meaningless sound in the air). After all, what we hear from others is only the air vibrating. It can sound like praise or blame, but that is only our interpretation. True spirituality is to cancel out all pairs of opposites and maintain one’s equanimity.” My feet faltered. My anger was gone. Peace and a sense of great blessing came.


37)         Dying you will attain heaven or winning you will have the enjoyment          of the earth. Therefore arise, O Arjuna, making up your mind to fight.


         Literal-minded readers look at this verse and say “Aha! You see, the Gita supports fighting and war.” Well, yes and no. Literally, Arjuna the warrior should almost certainly fight, as his present situation requires. Figuratively, we are being coaxed out of our state of indecision to live our life with determination and valor, in whatever path we choose.

         Don’t forget that we are winding down with the next-best philosophy of Samkhya rationalism, but a very clever thing is happening at the moment. With his precisely chosen words Krishna is counteracting Arjuna’s equally carefully expressed negativity from II, 8. Compare Arjuna’s complaint with Krishna’s response here: “I cannot visualize what could rid me of this distress… even should (it transpire that) I obtain unrivalled dominion of the earth’s plenty or overlordship of the gods in heaven too.” In Arjuna’s state of mind, losing and winning both have unacceptable consequences, while here, with an upgraded psychological orientation, the results of either case would be excellent. The Guru is employing a secret dialectic with his disciple, while quite definitely not recommending either outcome. In a sense he agrees with Arjuna that literal fighting is not the goal, as if he’s saying, “Either way you’ll get what you don’t want.” Both guru and disciple are interested in liberation through wisdom, and specific behavior is of secondary import at most.

         The Gita’s way is to unite opposites in dynamic tension, and is not about choosing one side over the other. Both heaven and the enjoyment of material objects are treated as beside the point or even hostile to the point in numerous places. It’s Arjuna’s engagement that matters, not the fruits he anticipates enjoying at harvest time. Krishna will teach him to enter a state of clarity free of desires for expected outcomes so he can decide for himself what to do.

         Part of the guru technique demonstrated here is the way Krishna counterbalances every attitude of Arjuna. It is a rare privilege to work with someone who can sense your state of mind and offer its exact opposite as an antidote. If you trust them enough, it helps you to let go of your fixations. Of course, if it’s someone you perceive as an enemy, it only heightens the polarity. Although it’s veiled, the Gita is portraying an incredibly dynamic aspect of the guru-disciple relationship here.

         We can’t restate too often that the battle that is being fought is our ordinary involvement with life and all its challenges. The teaching is meant to refer to everyone, everywhere, not just to a special case of a warrior in a war zone. If you try your best and fail, you still have your personal satisfaction in holding to your principles. If you succeed there will be plenty of benefits and accolades, but these are not what we should seek, as Krishna adds in the very next verse. All we are asked to do is try our best, and see where it leads us.


38)         Equalizing both pleasure and pain, both gain and loss, both victory and defeat, enter wholly into the battle. Thus you will avoid sin.


         Verse 38 closes the final section of this preliminary material, where Krishna is presenting an introductory teaching related to Arjuna’s unenlightened mental state. Equalization of opposites is the secret of yoga, and when this is practiced in the thick of the action of life we optimize our effectiveness. As most of the popular understanding of yoga is off the mark, dynamic equalization will be discussed throughout the work.

         Sin, as far as it is admitted by the Gita, consists of not measuring up to your potential. It does not preclude accomplishments in the future, or disqualify you for any merit-based position. No gods will be offended, and there is nothing like damnation possible. Giving every situation your best shot is all that is being asked of you. Even if you screw up, at least you tried. Above all, sin is rectifiable by a change of mind. Our attitudes are malleable, if we permit them to be.

         It is important to realize that Krishna mentions sin at the conclusion of his opening salvo because that was the notion that Arjuna was obsessed with at the outset. A guru must connect precisely with the state of mind of the disciple, and bring both of their minds into alignment, before the teaching can begin in earnest.

         Because of this, it will be worthwhile to have a brief survey of Krishna’s teaching so far, because we are being treated to a masterful depiction of a topnotch guru in action. He began by downplaying Arjuna’s fears, noting that the Absolute is eternal and unchanging in any number of ways, so Arjuna’s worries are unjustified. On the other hand, life itself is temporary and ever-changing, so he shouldn’t be nervous from that perspective either. Change, both for better and for worse, is inevitable.

         Once out on the battlefield, Arjuna felt like he was out of place, but according to Krishna he is exactly where he belongs, so he shouldn’t try to escape from the events around him. This implies that when spiritual insights are being allowed into consciousness, we may feel like we are supposed to be somewhere else either physically or mentally, but that’s a misreading of the impulse. Something is bothering us, but we aren’t sure quite what. Instead of imagining the answer is to be found in some exotic locale, we should open up to our feelings and listen to their message, because what we need to know is right here within us.

         Arjuna was afraid that war would cause all sorts of evil consequences, while in II, 33 Krishna tells him by not fighting he will bring about evil consequences. In the subsequent verses he spells out some of those negative possibilities in detail. Again, the idea is not to uphold the one over the other, but to neutralize Arjuna’s insistence on making a choice based on inferior criteria.

         The bottom line is the equalization of both the positive and negative aspects of every situation allows us to wholeheartedly participate in our life; holding to one or the other either paralyses us or throws us off kilter. Arjuna opened the dialogue by wondering which of the two options, fighting or fleeing, he should choose. Krishna concludes here by telling him to treat them together as one, to see them as polar aspects of the situation and not as an either/or problem. This, as we will repeatedly revisit, is the essence of the Gita’s yoga.


39)         What has just been taught is reasoning according to Samkhya, but hear now of the same according to Yoga, attaining to the unity of which reasoning you will be able to throw off the bondage of works.


         Now we’re beginning to get somewhere! Krishna has just clearly presented the rational world view of his day, not unlike our own, and will now introduce a revised orientation that will lead Arjuna to a more value-oriented vision. From this point the Gita offers more of its own radical perspective; heretofore it was only setting the stage with an overview of popular and philosophical attitudes, though with its own unique twist. Those attitudes are by no means entirely rejected, but by themselves they do not lead to liberation. They are related to excellence within normal parameters, but Arjuna and seekers like him are aiming to burst those bonds.

         Chapter II is split in half, with the first part covering the high points of Samkhyan philosophy and the second half introducing Yoga. Samkhya refers to rationalism and linear thought, related to the transactional world. Yoga in the Gita is dialectic, multi-dimensional thought, where all aspects of a situation are treated with equanimity. Rationalism is appropriate to ordinary activities; yoga dialectics is the path of spiritual penetration beyond the surface. That being said, Chapter V, verse 4 embraces both halves, claiming “That rationalism and yogic self-discipline are distinct, only children say, not the well-informed; one well-established in either one of them obtains the result of both.” Notice they’re not the same, only mutually complementary. The second chapter as a whole can thus be seen as an exercise in subtle dialectics.

         The following information is somewhat challenging, so anyone not wishing to mine every last nugget from the work can skip to the last two paragraphs.

         The Gurukula defines saccidananda (sat-chit-ananda) as existence-subsistence-value (or meaning), which is different than other systems, especially the ananda part, which is usually translated as bliss or joy. Relating what we have studied so far to saccidananda per Nataraja Guru, Chapter I was observational, pertaining to sat on the lowest level of the vertical axis. The Samkhya section we have just concluded deals with chit, the induction and deduction of linear thought. The next section on Yoga brings in dialectic thinking useful in matters of ananda or value, at the top of the vertical axis. All these can and should be treated integrally and not sequentially, but it is very important to distinguish the different types of ideation and their proper fields. Nataraja Guru cautions us that “Dialectics is conducive to unitive understanding only, and spoils the case when applied to ordinary situations in life where usual ratiocinative methods or logic would be the proper instrument to employ.” (Gita, p. 112.) He elaborates on this structural scheme in his Unitive Philosophy (377-78):


  Between a posteriori inferences from experimental data, we pass thus into the domain of such propositions as the famous Cartesian dictum, cogito ergo sum, and build rational or theoretical speculations upwards till we touch a region in pure higher reasoning which employs dialectics, called by Plato the highest instrument of reasoning, independent of all visible or sensible facts.

  This kind of reasoning, the dialectical, which takes us to the threshold of higher idealistic values in life is the third and the last step in philosophical methodology taken as a whole. The laws of nature refer to the world of existence. Rules of thought, whether axiomatic or based on postulates, refer to the world of subsistence. The third step of reasoning lives and has its being in the pure domain of human values, those referring to the True, the Good or the Beautiful, which are values in life and thus belong to the domain of axiology.

  The visible, the intelligible and the value worlds which we can mark out on a vertical line represent levels of higher and higher reasonings culminating in the dialectical. It is like soaring, or resorting to ascending dialectics as spoken of in certain circles. This level has, just inferior to it, the world of formal or syllogistic reasonings admitting of the limits of contradictions at its lower limit and of tautology at its higher limit, where logistic and propositional calculi are employed.

  At the lowest level in this vertical axis, where empirical or at least ontological factors prevail, referring to existent aspects of the physical world actually, perceptually or even conceptually understood, we have a region where certitudes naturally take the form of laws such as that of gravitation, or the conservation of matter and energy. Electromagnetic and thermodynamic laws belong to the Einsteinian physical world, whether treated epistemologically as real or ideal.

  Thus existential, subsistential and value aspects of the Absolute have three different methodological approaches, one proper to and compatible with each.

  A normal methodology applicable to integrated knowledge whether philosophical or scientific has to accommodate within its scope these three kinds of approaches to certitude, each in its proper domain. The experimental method suits existential aspects of the Absolute, the logical suits the subsistential and the dialectical suits the value aspects of the Absolute. Interest in the physical world gives place in the second stage of ascent to logical psychology or phenomenology, where ratiocination plays its part. Finally we ascend higher into the third aspect of the Absolute where value relations hold good and the instrument or methodology used is that of dialectics.


Clever Nataraja Guru also points out in his Gita commentary that “bondage of works” is a partial revaluation of “sin,” one degree milder thanks to the reasoning applied.


40)         Here there is no forfeiture of any merit, nor is there involved any demerit by transgression. Even a little of such a way of life saves one from great apprehension.


         As spiritual growth depends only upon a continuing unfoldment into the Absolute, there is nothing that “causes” it, exactly, though it is abetted by a willingness to direct one’s attention into the void or the empyrean, since that’s the direction our “life wave” is coming from. The Gita maintains that realization is wholly independent of horizontal factors, and so there is no piling up of merit through good actions that can make it happen. This is so important it is mentioned first in this section on yoga. Many religions trumpet such a merit-based program, and for a lot of people those ideas are especially appealing because they are in line with their training and understanding. After all, when all you see is the horizontal, in which cause and effect are always operative, it’s natural to think of good actions causing the effect of going to heaven or some other kind of future reward. Nataraja Guru’s quote in the previous verse shows how this comes from a confusion of contexts that “spoils the case.”

         What is popularly called karma, that we reap what we sow, actually implies merit. Karma is action in general, in all contexts. It’s an egotistical conceit that our good karma reserves us a seat in heaven or leads us to enlightenment, or even simply that it is baldly reciprocated in the way we expect. Again, that’s an unwarranted mixing of horizontal and vertical elements. Actions and reactions, with their innumerable factors, are extremely complicated to calculate even in the most mundane cases. We only see the bottom line when nature produces it for us as a reality. Our life is a kind of read out of all the many tangled threads of karma piled up inside us. While we reap some of what we sow, we also reap plenty of stuff we never sowed, and certainly never wanted to harvest. We have to deal directly with all that lands in our lap, no matter who sowed it.

         In the cosmic perspective, we reap much more than we deserve, and never what we expect. Seeing how that operates in our life is what wipes away the anxiety of trying to “get it right.” Nataraja Guru’s threefold division of types of events is very helpful. In mundane matters, karma and merit are simple and straightforward: you cook the food and you can eat it. You pick up the brick, put it in the right place, and it becomes part of your house. Put it in the wrong place and the house falls down. Or the food is improperly cooked and inedible.

         The world of concepts about the material world is based on logical reasoning, where ideas have more or less merit (utility) depending on their direct relationship to what they profess to represent. This is as far as ordinary thinking goes.

         The ananda or value aspect is what we generally call spiritual, the domain of meaning. Here there is no hard and fast rule of absolute correspondence; the game is far more subtle. Value is revealed by yoga, or a dialectical embrace of the whole picture. Its most important feature is that it is what leads us to grow and make forays into the unknown. Recognizing and manipulating the material world is static, a zero sum game. But when Buddha speaks his four noble truths, Hypatia reveals the suppressed capabilities of women, or Beethoven transmits his ninth symphony of universal joy and amity, value pours into humanity’s collective soul. Seeking and finding that source of creative inspiration is the motive for a value orientation, or what we glibly call spiritual life.

         Here’s how religions start: To begin with, someone becomes realized, in other words, remembers they are the Absolute in essence. They stumble on their inner source of creativity. As karma is extremely complex, this is a wholly mysterious event, independent of predictable influences. If they are outwardly directed, the realized soul soon attracts followers who wish to become realized as well. Realization is inexplicable, but what can a teacher do but try? He or she will draw on the events that surrounded the instant of connection, yet these are merely tangential to it, not causative. What we call window dressing. The followers try the same program, and draw some benefit from the community spirit involved, so they codify those accidents into a suggested spiritual regimen. There is always the hope that it will pay off. Over time the program becomes sacrosanct, worshipped by well-meaning folks who have heard that it worked once and if they follow it, it will work for them. Because it should work and doesn’t, the votaries become guarded and defensive about it. They imagine all kinds of benefits they are getting, and make it beautiful and attractive to clothe its emptiness. The longer the program goes without doing anything, the more the community is willing to compete with and even fight against other communities to prove their way is superior. Before long another religion is born, and as has been said, “the sect is the mausoleum of the guru.” Codified rituals kill the spirit, but they are easy to see and define.

         So how does non-ritualistic yoga save us from “great apprehension”? Fear is the prime impetus for action. Most societies, including our own, emphasize fear as the most important motivator for the protection of life. Fear-based action tends to enclose isolated individuals (as well as whole nations) in defensive barriers, thereby limiting their freedom, and consequently their happiness. Fear of pain is a powerful stimulus toward avoidance activities, but the fear of death, of ceasing to exist, is the nuclear blast-force that drives the psyche to continually seek to cling to existence, no matter how imaginary and disjoined from reality the clinging may be. The great apprehension mentioned here is the fear of ceasing to exist. Krishna began his discourse by asserting that that which exists will never cease to exist. It’s one thing to believe this theoretically, and another to know it in your bones. The Gita is claiming in this verse that the practice of yoga—-the uniting of opposites—-quells this deep-seated anxiety. By getting to know the reality of our Self, we attain a certitude that dispels all fears.

         In the verse, the word ‘path’ is usually added for clarity, as in “Here on this path.” Most commentators speak of a path, including Nataraja Guru, but the word iha only means ‘here’ or ‘in this’. There is no mention of a path in the original. A path implies causes leading to effects, and the Gita wants us to go beyond that kind of thinking. I have therefore taken the liberty of changing the Guru’s opening “In such (a path) there is no…” to “Here there is no….” The subject in question is yoga: dialectically balanced reasoning, the dynamic equalization of all aspects of the situation. The idea is that our fears are ameliorated by this kind of intelligence. It’s an attitude and way of life in the present rather than a path leading somewhere else. The importance of this minor detail cannot be overstated.

         I must also tip my hat to Nataraja Guru for being the only translator I found to use the term ‘merit’, which is definitely implied in this verse. The idea here is that in Yoga no effort goes to waste and there is no backsliding. If you are following a merit-based program, being good at following complex moral instructions codified in a scriptural text for instance, there is always the fear that you will make a mistake that will nullify the accumulated gold stars. Arjuna himself will ask about this in VI, 37 and 38. Hellfire lurks at the edges of such belief systems. But in the Gita’s perspective there is nothing to lose, because you already are the Absolute. In plain words, if you really know something, it never goes away. If you can get out from under the oppression of guarding your merits and realize you are who you are at every moment, you can relax and enjoy the trip.


41)         Here, O Arjuna, the well-founded reasoning is unitive, but many branched and endless are the reasonings of them in whom reason is ill-founded.


         The difference between well- and ill-founded reasoning is how closely they are in tune with their subject. The best reasoning is completely familiar with what it purports to describe, while the worst is utterly disjunct from it, and tries to compensate for the discrepancy by introducing all sorts of spurious arguments. Most of us have felt the frustration of trying to hold a discussion with someone who keeps veering into tangents and accusations that are beside the point, passing off baseless opinions as unassailable facts. A close look at many religions and belief systems reveals a similarly shaky foundation. Shockingly enough, a sincere examination of our own mental edifice may yield the same result.

         Oneness with the Absolute is unitive. In fact, the Absolute is simply the widely accepted neutral term for the oneness or singularity out of which the universe and its consciousness are generated. Well-founded reasoning is based on realization or at least appreciation of the Absolute, which can only legitimately occur in a unitive state of mind. Reasoning by itself does not produce the unitive state, but the unitive state gives rise to unitive reasoning, which is self-ratifying and does not need to be propped up by verbal arguments. It is often referred to as intuitive.

         When you think dualistically you can’t be in a unitive state, since describing oneness takes you out of it. Each enunciated idea can treat only a part of the whole, and therefore needs to be supplemented by another part, and then another, endlessly.

         Anyone who knows how to do something and has to explain it to someone else is familiar with this problem. It’s very hard to describe things that may be quite simple to grasp, like the directions in the box for how to assemble a tool or electronic device. Often it’s easier to demonstrate than explain. Nataraja Guru called the pictorial, hands on approach protolanguage, and the wordy, descriptive explanation metalanguage. Henri Bergson similarly spoke of knowing a thing from the inside compared with viewing it from outside from any number of different angles. His favorite analogy was the experience of being in Notre Dame cathedral: no matter how many letters and picture postcards of it you sent to a friend, they could never adequately reproduce the soul-stirring reality of being in it.

         The typical human adult has become trapped in a morass of metalanguage, where we are disconnected from the soul-stirring reality of our life, and struggle to recapture it using abstract descriptions (or intoxicating substances). Krishna wants to teach us how to revivify our protolanguage, our direct experience of our world, naturally. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but a unitive insight is worth a million pictures. Poetry at its best is a series of unitive insights. Krishna is going to help us learn how to become true poets in our daily life.

         While widely applicable, this verse is most germane in matters of religion, and Krishna is about to resolutely disabuse Arjuna of his unexamined beliefs. A realized person may be aware of being realized, and may utter meaningful words about the state as well. But their followers, while they might have an idea of what is going on, are stuck with trying to imagine the state, and are busy describing it in their minds. Different descriptions lead to arguments, miffed feelings, and eventually disagreements, building to different schools of thought or even into whole new religions. By contrast, the Gita is trying to indicate a state that is all-inclusive and loving, free of superficial conflicts. We are called to slough off the divisive tendency and look for what unites all the factions.

         A unitive state cannot be divided, which means that anyone who says, “I am realized,” is demonstrating that they aren’t realized. In realization the ego sense is subsumed in the totality, so there is no separate ‘I’ to realize anything. “I am realized” is a secondary description of a unitive experience, and pinpointing who it refers to is a “many-branched and endless” project.

         Of course there will always be different interpretations of events for different types of people, but it is essential to remember that their goal is the same: oneness or unity with the Absolute, or the true meaning of the event. Knowing this, we help each other to understand instead of striving to prove ours is the better way, or worse yet, the sole right way. Narayana Guru famously said, “Ours is to know and let know, not to argue and win.” When you know, there is no need to argue. You only want to share.

         While we may well have an intuitive idea of what we mean when we say God or the Absolute, trying to communicate our awareness to someone else would take billions of years and still fall short. We have to settle for partial communication. Our friends presume the best, and so they agree with us even when we actually have very different images in mind, while our enemies disagree no matter how closely we actually agree. When a relationship goes bad it’s very hard to shrug off those very real gaps and get back in accord, because it requires a presumption of innocence.

         Each of us knows our own ‘I’ from the inside, and our life is a symbolic, many-branched and endless explanation of that ‘I’ to our fellow beings, and also to our own ego. We can never explain it well enough to avoid at least a measure of misunderstanding. Lots of people give up trying, even (which is how God must feel, sometimes!). It helps to know in advance that, short of an all-too-rare intuitive connection, only a semblance of communication is possible. Then we’re happy to have our friends add their parts to our parts, thereby improving our approximation, instead of arguing over whose approximation is the “right” one. In the long run we are better off by simply being ourselves rather than always trying to explain who we are.

         Because of our training we are ready to argue vehemently, even go to war, over who’s right and who’s wrong. This is one aspect of the great fear that goes away quickly with no more than a smidgen of yogic insight, per verse 40. We should be ecstatic to be alive in such an incredible universe of infinite delight. What do we need to prove? Only insecure egos are compelled to justify their existence by crediting their ideas to a putative god and insisting we agree with them. The minute we realize we are the Absolute in essence, such insecurity is banished forever.

         One more area where this verse is relevant is truthfulness. In a relative world, perfect truthfulness is inadvisable and even impossible, but if you are intentionally truthful to yourself at least, your life takes on an easy confidence. Once you begin to lie and manipulate other people, you have to forge new constructs all the time to keep the game going. Supporting lies with more lies is another endless process. When scriptures advise us to be truthful—and all those I am aware of do—-they are attempting to steer us clear of such perverse entanglements. Then the quest for truth leads us into the heart of the Absolute.


42-44) Such flowery speech as uttered by the foolish, adhering to the doctrine of the Veda, negating any other (transcendental) verity, the self of which is nothing but desire-made, holding heaven to be the highest goal, offering only birth as the result of works abounding in many special observances, which aim at enjoyment and domination; in the case of those whose minds are under the sway of such teachings, who are attached to enjoyment and domination, a well-founded reason does not come under the sway of the peace of contemplation.


         The Gita specifically takes on evangelical religion now, describing it as a con job based on wishful thinking that blocks the attainment of peace. These verses are a scathing indictment of organized religion as not only inadequate on its own terms but destructive and suspicious of all truth and wisdom that might fall outside its limited scope of awareness. Certainly Krishna needs to wean his disciple away from the toxic beliefs he has been marinated in for his whole life. Yet while on the surface it sounds like a blanket condemnation of religion, all these faults should be sought within each person’s conscience as well, because they are not just somebody else’s problem. We all think like this on a personal level, which is why it is reflected in group behavior as well. Let’s look at these verses closely:

         Flowery speech as uttered by the foolish. Krishna is referring to the many branched and endless but tantalizing arguments used to peddle everything from trinkets up to religious affiliation. It is easy to be led astray by persuasive language. A dubious proposition may sound just fine when couched in carefully chosen verbiage. As Eve guilefully put it in the most famous subterfuge of all time, “The serpent beguiled me and I did eat.” (Genesis 3:13) No need to admit guilt when you can blame your behavior on someone else!

         Psychologists have studied the conscious and unconscious effects of words in detail, and the results are widely used to power commercial advertising and political propaganda. Good orators on the pulpit have ever been able to convince those not securely grounded in self-awareness of almost anything, including the desirability of warfare and of sacrificing their lives for any number of ungodly causes. A yogi should never fall for it.

         A survey of modern books on spiritual issues demonstrates that flowery speech uttered by foolish dilettantes is still rampant, and quite lucrative. Many are filled with circular logic and unprovable assertions about imaginary subjects, but must be very convincing to some because they sell well. While titillating the imagination, they are basically distractions from the kind of serious spiritual focus presented by the Gita, which doesn’t rely on unnecessary stimulation.

         Adhering to the doctrine of the Veda. The Vedas comprised established religion in the Gita’s day, so for us this means simply, “adhering to religious doctrine.” The flowery speech comes from religious believers, in other words. The sincere ones try to convince you because it helps them overcome their own doubts if you will agree to their fictions. The crafty ones are after your money or your free labor.

         Negating any other verity. True believers value only what they believe, and everything else is wrong. Such foolish people divide the world into their side, which has an exclusive connection to truth, and all those poor souls who don’t agree with it. Once securely ensconced within this self-imposed barricade, truth is systematically excluded, along with the members of the other groups.

         Nataraja Guru added transcendental in parenthesis in front of verity to distinguish that this holds for important truths and is fairly irrelevant regarding everyday matters, which everybody has a different take on anyway. He notes the literal translation of this section would be “those who contend there is no second side to a given argument.” Since the Gita extols balance and inclusion, this is anathema to it.

         Most philosophical arguments about truth center around people’s beliefs and propositions in relation to facts about the world—horizontal facts—which are infinite in number. There is endless wrangling because, as has been decisively established by scientific and psychological investigations in the twentieth century, facts are a byproduct of consciousness, and not the other way around. The revolutionary notion of the rishis is that there is only one unarguable fact, called by them the Absolute, brahman. It is a transcendental fact because it cannot be pinned down. All thoughts, opinions, and religious and philosophical systems aim to describe this fact in the most perfect possible way, but they inevitably fall short. Clashes come about from the different styles of description chosen, not from any difference in the fact itself.

         This absolute fact is not entirely comprehensible to any mind, and so only a partial grasp of it can be had by even the most brilliant observer. We are left with different descriptions of different aspects of a unitive truth, which produces the babelization responsible for the endless arguments humans are famous for. The badly misnamed absolutism of the Hitlerian stripe refers to those who insist their partial view covers everything. It should be called absolute insistence on partiality. Sadly, such extreme attitudes have tarnished the philosophically sound term absolute in many people’s minds, but rest assured they are not the same thing.

         Because of the problem of babelization, silence is highly regarded by the rishis. But silence can be static and empty, unless it reflects absorption in a dynamic awareness. It has to be a stillness that simultaneously crackles with energy.

         Thus truth is only grasped when the interpretive apparatus is completely transcended, to have direct, unmediated contact with reality as such. Relative interpretations are all false to the degree they add or subtract anything at all to the immediate experience. All religions and philosophies necessarily are interpretive and therefore partial and subject to conflicting conceptualizations. What they leave out or add on is the measure of their falsity.

         A piecemeal or partial kind of truth lends itself perfectly to self-deception, and since no one can ever know the whole truth about anything, we have to be content with a selected version of it. It’s a small step to ignoring unpleasant facts that don’t match our preferred perspective, and then we begin to engineer and even manufacture facts to support our position. While early on we may feel like a kid getting away with stealing a cookie, the habit is highly addictive, and we effortlessly move on to become chronic dissemblers. Part of the game is to insist we are in possession of the truth, that we know more than everybody else or are on the inside track. Our home team, whether tribal, political or religious, is happy to reinforce the belief that we are right and others wrong. This is the common quicksand on which humans build their castles. The cure is to acknowledge our limitations and cultivate a globally inclusive perspective that considers all sides and is willing to listen to everyone’s claims. But beyond that is… what? What is the truth of which we all so glibly speak, as though it was a perfectly ordinary and obvious object instead of an infinite intangible mystery? We will be looking into that as we proceed.

         The Kurukshetra War of the Gita setting demonstrates precisely this type of conflict. The Kauravas want it all their way, and since they are in power they aren’t willing to give up even the slightest bit of their false claims. The Pandavas have compromised with them repeatedly, continually giving ground. This has failed to appease the greedy side, merely whetting their appetite for more. Arjuna’s initial impulse is to accede to their convictions, which means dropping out of the conflict entirely. But Krishna insists that he stay and face the music, and he is giving him an earful at the moment. There is a qualitatively different involvement he can have, if he can only come to know the big picture. Those swaggering convictions of the powerful are delusional and poisonous, so anyone dedicated to truth must not surrender to them.

         The self of which is nothing but desire-made. This refers to the flowery speech, which is impelled by desires, in other words wishful thinking in place of any actual knowledge. No one has ever seen the heavens described in various scriptures, which should be considered metaphorical at best. Yet wars are waged over which word-picture is the correct image. Wishful thinking can be devastating when amplified by desperation, and clinging to imaginary goals requires an ever more desperate grip, lest their emptiness be revealed. The oppression instigated by desire will be confronted throughout the Gita.

         The artificial self constructed out of desires is our persona, that strategy we devised in infancy to interface with our caregivers. Our crucial mistake is to come to believe we are our persona, and forget the much vaster being who wears it like a mask. Realization or union with the Absolute are names for the return to our greater self from the arid reaches of our personality.

         Self-help books are big sellers, because so many of us have fantasies about how we should look, eat, behave, worship, and so on. We are taught to be dissatisfied with how we are, and the ensuing schism between who we are and who we think we should be makes us permanently unhappy. One of the most important early steps in spiritual life is to learn to accept ourselves as we are deep down, to sweep away all the fantasies and posturing. As Chogyam Trungpa puts it, we have to befriend ourself first, before we can even begin.

         Holding heaven to be the highest goal. Displacing the blissful experience of being alive into a far off and hypothetical future is a frequent target of Krishna’s scorn. An imaginary afterlife allows people to quietly accept a life of misery and servility, patiently awaiting a better time instead of making efforts to improve their situation to the best of their ability. This is one of the greatest tragedies of the human race, derailing as it does a vast potential energy to make people’s lives better in uncountable ways. Even as to pure spirituality, people often become passive or even negative due to maladjustment with the present, once they accept themselves as chosen for election to heaven.

         Writer Kurt Vonnegut, in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, gently chides the belief in heaven:


Heaven is the bore of bores… so most wraiths queue up to be born—and they live and love and fail and die, and they queue up to be reborn again. They take pot luck, as the saying goes. They don’t gibber and squeak to be one race or another, one sex or another, one nationality or another, one class or another. What they want and what they get are three dimensions—and comprehensible little packets of time—and enclosures making possible the crucial distinction between inside and outside.

  There is no inside here. There is no outside here. To pass through the gates in either direction is to go from nowhere to nowhere and from everywhere to everywhere.


         We don’t have to think only of religious heaven, either. Secular wishful thinking posits heaven as getting that dream job, attaining the perfect figure, meeting Mr. Right, getting rich—so many distractions to channel our energies into, instead of self-realization. We may do any of these things, but we shouldn’t treat them as our salvation. We need to remember we are already “saved” just by being ourselves.

         So whether we work assiduously toward heaven or become passive in its shadow, heaven is a highly subversive concept we should be very careful with.

         Offering only birth as the result of works abounding in many special observances. This refers to the Vedic belief that you can incrementally improve your lot karmically by good works and righteous behavior, which leads you to be reborn in improved circumstances. By the time of the Gita, the rules for proper behavior had become a mishmash of worship practices and other obligatory rituals. Every detail of life was painstakingly spelled out in the scriptures, with any room for free will obliterated. Later, in IX, 21, the Gita will point out that life in heaven is in any case a temporary state, and is inevitably followed by rebirth. Likewise, life on earth is a temporary state inevitably followed by redeath. The Gita envisions a state of unconditioned freedom, both from prescribed actions and even from the repetition of births and deaths. Unitive life is its own fruit, as it unfolds in the present, and it does not rely on any future payoff arising from meritorious activities.

         Which aim at enjoyment and domination. The flowery speeches may disguise the fact, but all this relativist religion is a sublimated vision of thwarted egos seeking ways to make themselves top dogs. And for a lucky few, it works! Krishna is putting his finger on the essential point of all the smoke and mirrors, that it’s a way for insiders to exploit the rest of us. The baffling part is that humans so readily submit to the deception. We lunge for the carrot on the stick, and don’t step back to examine the whole apparatus that converts us into an unwitting beast of burden. We are lured on by cheesy attractions and ignore our best capabilities. Krishna well realizes the difficulty in distinguishing between dualistic pleasure and unitive bliss, and this will be a major field of exploration for Arjuna quite early in his discipleship. Pleasure is dependent on costly externals, while bliss is our very nature and is free.

         The rest of this section merely states that this relativistic approach does not achieve anything worth having; what is worth having is called here the peace of contemplation. Peace with a capital P is one description of the aim of yoga, as is a well-founded reason. A better wording of verse 44 would be, “those whose minds are under the sway of such teachings, who are attached to enjoyment and domination, do not come under the sway of either a well-founded reason or the peace of contemplation.” The bottom line is that a yogi must not be gullible, and will be given many opportunities to find out why.


45)         The Vedas treat of matters related to the three gunas; you should be free from these three modalities, Arjuna, free from (relative) pairs of opposites, established ever in pure being, without alternately acquiring and enjoying, (unitively) Self-possessed.


         Krishna abruptly introduces the three nature modalities or gunas, one of the Gita’s most important additions to Indian philosophy. Being well known in his day there was no reason for him to lay any groundwork for them. They will be discussed in detail elsewhere, especially in Chapter XIV. The gunas are essentially three psychological states that affect the mind in rotation with various combinations and permutations. Broadly, they are clear and focused, colorful and busy, and dark and stagnant, respectively named sattva, rajas and tamas. The reason for their mention here is that in religion there is often a striving for the clear state and a rejection of darkness and even of the colorful, passionate state. In a balancing philosophy like yoga, however, they are to be treated equally as aspects of the same condition. When they hold sway over the mind, it is necessarily undergoing varying degrees of limited awareness and is not properly attuned to the Absolute. Hence Krishna’s exhortation to become free of them, which is a rejection of the typical religious attitudes that advocate becoming more pure, or “more sattvic.” Though soundly refuted by the Upanishadic rishis, the emphasis on relative states like good, better, best still persists in many places, as with “mirror-polishing Zen” or “holier than thou” attitudes. Much more on this lies ahead.

         “Freedom from the relative pairs of opposites” we have discussed at length already. One test of absolute values is whether they have a contrary position: anything with an opposite is not the Absolute, which can only be “pure being,” containing all. Ideas like “true believer” or “chosen people” clearly fail the test, because they imply there are false believers and unchosen people. Krishna will several times assure Arjuna that such categories are invalid from his perspective.

         The next-to-last phrase, which I have rendered as “without alternately acquiring and enjoying,” is translated in numerous ways. Niryogakshema means literally without yoga and kshema. It is somewhat problematic that in a treatise on yoga, the Guru recommends not performing yoga, and in a book about attaining lasting happiness that you should not seek well-being or enjoyment.

         Nataraja Guru has it “without any yoga or well-being,” which is a very literal translation. He mentions discipline as the meaning of yoga in this case. His disciple Nitya Chaitanya Yati says “without any yoga (discipline) or well-being (as dual factors).” Mitchell has it as being free from thoughts of wealth and comfort, Radhakrishnan as not caring for acquisition of the new and preservation of the old. Mahesh Yogi says being independent of possessions. Thompson has it as “free from both the exertion for wealth and the enjoyment of it.” All give us indications of the main implications.

         Yoga is being used in this verse in the sense of striving for a goal, of stepwise progress toward enlightenment or more specific attainments. Kshema is resting in the result of the striving, imagined as heaven or some other attainment. The Gita recommends a steady state where everything is already present, subtly poised between these two poles of ordinary action. The point is to be lodged in unity and eschew dual factors, however they may be identified.

         Krishna is addressing the way we are obsessively goal oriented. We pick an objective, work to attain it, and then enjoy it for awhile before choosing a new goal. This is the ordinary conception of action, resembling an endless series of births and deaths, and it is about to be contradicted in verse 47 with one of the Gita’s primary teachings, that we should not perform actions with any expectations of results. The idea is to go beyond mundane transactional behavior to a new state of being. It’s a little tricky to get this exactly right, so there will be extensive discussion of it over the next several chapters. For now the reader can ponder all the objections that spring to mind, and bring them to bear on the subject as we go along. That’s precisely the seeker’s task in any case.

         It’s of more than passing interest that kshema, a place of rest, security or comfort, comes from the same root as kshetra, the field that opened the Gita and will be the basis of Chapter XIII. There it is the field of dharma and the field of action. The root kshi means “to abide, stay, dwell, reside (used especially of an undisturbed or secret residence)”—-MW. The sense of rest in kshema comes from having your own place, your own field. We build our house and then live in it, just as we build our world view and live in it. That means Krishna is counseling us not to get stuck in our mental constructs, which cause us to become fixed and limited, caught in the rat race. The relation of this admonishment with static religious beliefs is also at center stage here. It is the opposite of the venerable “idle hands are the devil’s playground,” the exhortation to always being doing something. More like “busyness is the devil’s playground.” A yogi wants to be free to meet every new occasion on its own terms, and so keeps their programs as open and unbinding as possible.


46)         There would be as much use for all the Vedas to a Brahmin of wisdom as there could be for a pool of water when a full flood prevails all over.


         A very ancient antiestablishment story is referred to here. A high caste Brahmin, believing he should never drink water that has been touched by the lower castes, kept his own well surrounded by a fence of thorns, to which only he had access. One day a flood overran the countryside, but the Brahmin procured a boat and calmly rowed out to the site of his well, where he proceeded to dip his bucket.

         Vyasa has actually revealed the meaning in this verse. The Vedas—or in our terms we might say scriptures in general—are the deep well of wisdom to which the learned priest has exclusive access. Down inside this source is the water of the Absolute, and the priest can portion out small doses of it for the private benefit of his votaries and himself. This is the way of religion. But the realized person sees the Absolute everywhere and in everything, so the concept of it being localized is absurd. Anyone can sip all the water they need sitting on the front step of their domicile. We all draw from the same well, or really the same flood.

         Religions are like wells guarding precious holy water, but with a full flood coursing through our veins there is no special point in dipping our buckets in any particular place. Still, we should smile and nod to the partisans of each well, who may not know of the flood and so cling tightly to their favorite source as the only one. They may scorn anyone who drinks the same water of life in another place, but that is their blindness, not ours.


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


         Relinquishing the benefit of action is one of the Gita’s key contributions to the enlightenment of humanity. It inevitably brings up a lot of resistance when first encountered, because it smacks of an insipid fatalism, but that is far from the intent. That’s why Krishna includes the caution against inaction in the same sentence.

         Thinking of an eventual payoff takes us away from acting with expertise, which is exactly what Krishna is busy imparting to Arjuna. Such highly effective and artistic action is more readily associated in the Western mind with Zen Buddhism, but there is little or no difference between them. Please be patient and listen with an open mind. It will take a little time to get the whole picture across. Several chapters at least.

         Most action is prompted by desire. We have been trained to visualize a goal and work toward it. Our goals are basically in line with satisfying our wants and needs. This is all well and good in the realm of transaction. But the Gita is a text of spiritual advice. Arjuna has come up against the limits of transactional behavior, and he wants something else, something more satisfying and profound. Krishna teaches that freedom is not found in transactional give and take, nor in evading transactional life. There is a transcendental neutrality which encompasses and engulfs the transactional world, and it is worthy of exploration. In fact it is the best way to express our own true nature or dharma.

         It may take awhile, but once you are established in neutrality there is no desire to accomplish anything, because the bliss of that position is all-fulfilling. Doing and not doing have the same negligible impact. It may well be that we accomplish more from a desireless standpoint, because the motivation comes from something more profound than desire, such as altruism or creative inspiration. As we get pulled out of our dharma into focusing on our desires, we become attached to the results of our activities, and before we know it we’ve lost our center. We become enmeshed in busyness, and the bliss evaporates. Like Arjuna in the midst of the dueling armies, we sooner or later realize something essential is missing. To rectify this the Gita recommends dropping the attachment to results and just engaging in pure action as the immediate situation requires. Nothing to it! The catch is we’ve become totally addicted to external values, to living for a future payoff, so letting go is not so easy. Most religions enshrine a future payoff in their program, via heaven or nirvana or something, and it fits right in with our addiction. That’s what makes religious programs so popular. But by merely returning to the now, we remerge with the Absolute, which is our true nature or dharma, and there is nothing else which needs to be done. Whatever we choose to do will be perfectly in tune. As Richard Wilhelm says in his I Ching commentary, “Whoever acts from these deep levels makes no mistakes.”

         So here’s an example. If a teacher stands before a class and thinks something like “I’m going to teach them such and such, and they will get this and this and this idea from it, which will help them to be better human beings,” several things will go haywire. First of all, the teacher is not really absorbed in the subject, but having expectations about the outcome instead. Almost by magic the class will also fail to be absorbed in the subject and begin thinking of what time the class is over. On the other hand, if the teacher is entranced by what is being presented, then the class is much more likely to be entranced as well. Having fixed expectations will lead to frustration when the expectations aren’t met, and what’s worse, whatever the students do pick up on will be undervalued as being only part of the intended lesson. Learning is an almost mystical process, where output and input are surprisingly dissimilar. Part of the fun is hearing later what unanticipated insight came across despite the teacher’s intentions.

         The best teacher forges ahead with their love affair with the subject in front of the class, and is not overly concerned with what is picked up. The listeners will be drawn in by the teacher’s enthusiasm, and will gain a lot with almost no effort. In addition, a good teacher can sense whether what they’re saying is getting through or not, which can be a prod to try another tack or offer another example. Rapport with the student is an important part of the transmission of wisdom and even knowledge. But for an absorbed teacher there are no expectations about how it will turn out, since what stays in anyone’s mind will always be unforeseeable and inexplicable. As we know, this ideal is universally sabotaged by a world obsessed with grading and assessing minute details of knowledge transmission, but that’s another issue. Krishna, as an excellent guru-teacher, is interacting dynamically with his pupil, and not just presenting a rote program for him to adapt to.

         With a little reflection, many examples should come to mind of how we lose the flow by being drawn away into anticipating a specific result of our action. This is a very good exercise for contemplation.

         The advice about expectations doesn’t just pertain to the way we mentally align ourselves to the world. Expectations are often unconscious, and certainly the most insidious ones are. I have seen irrational eruptions from seemingly normal people that upon close examination must have been the product of unacknowledged expectations. The unwitting carrier of them becomes frustrated that someone else is not responding properly, and then grows angry, even explosively angry. They are bearing an unsigned contract that the other has violated without knowing it.

         This is a common subtheme of personal relations, and is a particularly good reason to perform a critical self-examination. If we become frustrated over something, we should ask ourselves why, what is it we expect and why isn’t the expectation being met. Once rooted out, the secret desire can be either discarded with a laugh, or if explicitly explained to the other person they might fulfill the expectation gladly enough. Getting it out in the open is the best hope for a happy resolution.

         It is not uncommon for a shy person to be smitten with love for another, and yet that person thinks of them only as a nice friend. The lover doesn’t dare come right out and declare their love, and the longer it goes unnoticed the more frustrating the impasse becomes. The frustration can begin to masquerade as all sorts of weird projections in the negative range, like putting the beloved down or even hating them. Disadoption of one’s formerly admired guru has a lot to do with unfulfilled expectations. From a neutral vantage point this kind of entanglement is fairly easy to spot, but from within it can mask itself behind all sorts of chimeras. The Gita wants us very much to avoid becoming caught up in such kinds of diversion from a straightforward, normative attitude. We can call it spiritual, but basically it is just sensible.


48)         Engage in activity, Arjuna, taking your stand on the unitive way,          discarding attachments, and capable of regarding both attainment and nonattainment as the same: in sameness consists the unitive way.


         How unfortunate that we pin our self-respect on whether we win or lose, succeed or fail. Those are only momentary stages in the long course of life. Yoga means remaining always in a balanced yet blissful state, only minimally affected by the positive or negative outcomes of actions taken.

         Sameness does not mean that we shouldn’t feel. We should love every drop of experience, enjoying the good times and ruing the bad, crying over tragedies and laughing about our foibles. But if we are grounded in wisdom these experiences won’t either knock us down or encourage us to be arrogant. They will energize our determination to overcome adversity, be more creative, more helpful to our friends and associates, and maybe more amusing than ever. Above all we will not be led into absurdities by our desires for or against everything, and will be able to optimize our authentic self-expression instead.

         This verse contains an early and important definition: yoga consists of sameness or equanimity. It means residing in a deeper place than the ego, so it is not as shaken by events. It means playing the game of life for the fun of it, and not just to compensate for deep-seated feelings of inferiority by pursuing the temporary sense of superiority that comes from beating an opponent. This was the alternative mindset Arjuna was casting about for when he decided he didn’t want to fight wars anymore. All you need in order to practice sameness is to know yourself in your very core. No especial performance is required.

         In this verse ‘attainments’ is a translation of siddhi, which often refers to psychic powers achieved through arcane mystical practices. Siddhis are a goal of striving in the religious sphere, and they are discountenanced by the Gita. It is said that in the process of merger with the Absolute, siddhis come to the practitioner as a matter of course, meaning certain unusual abilities appear as byproducts of our focus on the Absolute. That’s fine. But if we strive directly for those attainments, we give short shrift to the most important aim in our life, which is union with the Absolute. If union is achieved, any psychic powers that come along will be handled wisely; otherwise they will be exploited by the untamed ego, and the result may well backfire or rebound to our detriment. It’s like trying to force peace onto a troubled region and unintentionally creating more conflict. The famous story of The Monkey’s Paw, by W. W. Jacobs illustrates this principle with spine-tingling horror, where three seemingly innocent wishes also generate their horrific shadow side. An open, unegotistical attitude is essential, as it is a humble admission that we don’t know enough to choose well, so we are looking to our inner guidance system, which is far wiser than our ego. Even more importantly, it redirects a selfish attitude to a selfless one, which is healthier both outwardly and inwardly.

         A ready example in modern life of how people are led astray by a desire for attainment is the craze for sports records or becoming an Olympic champion. Motivation is drawn from the desire to accomplish some kind of supreme achievement in physical ability. Lured by such a goal, millions of athletes strive mightily, eyes on the prize, pushing themselves to the limit, often causing themselves serious injuries, and even cheating by taking performance enhancing drugs. It’s all about being number one.

         Out of those hopeful millions, a very few reach the pinnacle of success, where they remain for a relatively short time. In a system like that there are a handful of winners and armloads of losers. Wouldn’t it be better all around if everyone did what they did simply for the enjoyment of it? It’s less spectacular, sure, but who needs a spectacle when you’re having fun? The Gita’s philosophy has a parallel in the adage “It’s not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game.”

         There is no need to dismantle the business of professional sports or ban the Olympics. This is an individual decision and can be implemented at any time. Just stop striving to be a winner and start concentrating on your present performance, seeking to discover who you are. You may well improve faster with such an outlook, and you surely will enjoy yourself more, no matter what you do. By doing this you will have disaffiliated yourself from the context of suffering, which is the defining achievement of yoga given in VI, 23. You are in the midst of the same milieu, possibly performing the same actions, but you have turned your focus inward to your true nature instead of outward in competition with the rest of the world.

         Everyone wants to be recognized and appreciated, and supposes they have to do something awe-inspiring to be noticed. They are welcome to try whatever they like, but the Gita’s advice is to discover our essence as the Absolute, which brings us an abiding satisfaction that is not dependent on either other people’s opinions or our rating in respect to them.


49)         Far inferior is the way of action to the unitive way of reason, Arjuna, resort to reason for final refuge; pitiful indeed are they who are benefit motivated.


         The Gita has led up to a survey of reason beginning here and lasting to the end of the chapter that will call into question many commonly accepted beliefs. In verse 69 it goes so far as to claim it is the exact opposite of normal awareness. The penetrating analysis it presents reflects contemplation at its best. The reasoning in question is dialectical, rather than the linear reasoning we employ in ordinary thinking.

         Dialectical reasoning unites opposite poles in an expansive synthesis. This type of reason is literally equated with yoga, a fact passed over in more religious interpretations of the Gita. As with Socrates, intense concentration on the subject combined with thorough questioning of all assumptions is the technique employed. The Gita will later call it the wisdom sacrifice, and accord it the highest position in the hierarchy of methods to attain union with the Absolute.

         Wisdom transmission is a dialectical proposition, differing significantly from the linear transmission of information that ordinary instruction provides. Teacher and taught begin as polar opposites in whom a kind of osmotic interchange takes place, each stimulating and edifying the other, until they become as one in realization. It is a qualitative rather than a quantitative process.

         Reason is akin to the state of equal-mindedness being propounded by Krishna here. The Gita isn’t espousing some strange and mysterious ability, just simple sanity, an ability to step back and intelligently analyze the scene with self-confidence. Too bad the knack is so rare in the human species.

         The Bhagavad Gita is a very down-to-earth exposition of practical psychology, which unfortunately has been given a religious cast by generations of superstitious humans. Because of this, its valuable advice for obtaining and maintaining a well-adjusted psyche has been lost. It remains a secret biding its time in plain sight, awaiting a seeker with the proper determination to know it as it is.

         Unitive reason incorporates emotional wisdom along with rational wisdom. Many seekers falsely believe they are supposed to repress their emotions to attain enlightenment. Nothing could be further from the truth! Jonah Lehrer, in his excellent book How We Decide, (Boston: Mariner, 2009), extensively explores the importance of emotions in intelligence. He writes:


[Because of extensive studies that have been done] we can now begin to understand the surprising wisdom of our emotions. The activity of our dopamine neurons demonstrates that feelings aren’t simply reflections of hard-wired animal instincts…. Instead, human emotions are rooted in the predictions of highly flexible brain cells, which are constantly adjusting their connections to reflect reality. Every time you make a mistake or encounter something new, your brain cells are busy changing themselves. Our emotions are deeply empirical.

  [Our neurons are] continually incorporating the new information, turning a negative feeling into a teachable moment. (41)


Lehrer’s book is replete with examples of how easily our vaunted rationality, when segregated from emotional awareness, can be subverted by the most trivial information. Excellent decision making—the goal of the Gita as well—is a complex ability demanding wide-ranging expertise. There is no simple formula we should memorize, or special technique. Thinking clearly is a grand symphonic achievement, not a ditty to hum or a familiar mantra to endlessly repeat.

         Yes, it’s shocking but true: we can boil down the Gita’s teaching to how to make optimal decisions. Recall at the beginning of the chapter, as he was requesting discipleship Arjuna asked for Krishna’s help in deciding his best course of action, culminating in “with a mind confounded in regard to what is right to do, I ask you: that which is definitely more meritorious do indicate to me.” After pouring out the cream of the collective wisdom of ancient India in a format perfectly tailored to his personality, Krishna’s final teaching is to pass the torch back to Arjuna, confident that he can now make important decisions intelligently: “critically scrutinizing all, omitting nothing, do as you like.”

         Nataraja Guru qualifies karma here as pertaining to a “way” of action, meaning a rigid step-by-step program of some sort. Often enough religions are structured like the Boy Scouts, where you perform specific acts to achieve abilities advertised with “merit badges” which you wear on your shirt, and when you have enough merits accumulated you can be admitted to the next level or cash them in for prizes. Krishna isn’t interested in any cheesy game like that. But he has no problem with action per se. The Gita is building toward an important conclusion in the next verse that “yoga is reason in action.” The highly challenging idea is to replace action bound by innumerable constraints to acting with free choice. The third and fourth chapters will present karma yoga, unitive action, or unfettered action guided by intelligence, in detail.

         This is the teaching of Krishna’s that causes Arjuna some confusion, leading him to ask for clarification at the beginning of the next chapter. Krishna is speaking here of more or less unexamined action and comparing it unfavorably to unitive reasoning as it will be taught. Religious seekers performing prescribed acts to secure future payouts in heaven or here-and-now benefits on earth are the main targets of this continuing diatribe against religious idolatry.

         In the business and political spheres, plotting and planning are taken for granted. You could call them part of the fun. But they should definitely include due consideration of their impact. This teaching is not about being noncompetitive, if such is your nature. But if your planning is overly specific and doesn’t take all other sides fairly into account, it would fall under Krishna’s blanket condemnation. Many immediately successful plans have dire consequences in the long run. Cutthroat behavior degrades everyone, while honest and reasonable programs have wide-ranging benefits. The modern day deification of “The Market” as an excuse for an amoral or even immoral strategy will come in for a righteous blast in Chapter XVI.

         The last line, pitiful are they who are motivated by benefits or results, tips us off to the type of action being referred to. If you are doing something not because it is your true nature or dharma but because you believe it will get you something in the future, you are acting under delusion, and it’s too bad, because it’s highly likely to have an unanticipated and unpleasant outcome, not only for you but for everybody else. This is pitiful because it shrinks the rich beauty of life into a kind of spiritual poverty, by first imagining you don’t have what you need and then begging or scheming for it. As the Isa Upanishad says, “Relax and enjoy!”


50)         Affiliated to reason one leaves behind here both meritorious and unmeritorious deeds. Therefore affiliate yourself to the unitive way; yoga is reason in action.


         A handful of definitions are scattered throughout the Gita, and here is one of the most important: yoga is reason in action. The subtleties of conjoining thought and action to produce a harmonious life expression are going to be expounded in depth for a few chapters. Still, it doesn’t hurt to have a motto to sum up a lot of the subject occasionally.

         The assertion here is that by intelligent reasoning it is possible to realize that a merit-based lifestyle is second rate, and discard its allures. Those who take pride in being screw offs, doing their best to perform unmeritorious deeds, are also considered inferior. In yoga there is nothing that you need to believe as a matter of faith, positively or negatively. Nor does realization come about as the result of popular approval, or any other kind of external conferment. Enlightenment comes from the inside, from allowing consciousness to blossom into its widest possible ambit.

         The transition being described is from linear thinking to holistic thinking, or from one-dimensional to a multidimensional vision. In Therapy and Realization in the Bhagavad Gita, Guru Nitya Chaitanya Yati describes the dialectical reasoning under consideration:


If you are on a rational plane, you won’t be able to get into the fundamentals of it. There is a point where you have to give up your surface mind and be prepared to dive deep and also to soar high. Another kind of reasoning is to be introduced here. This kind of reasoning is mentioned in Plato’s Republic, where he speaks of dialectics as a hymn. This is the kind of philosophy that a philosopher king should possess. When a seeker goes on step by step using rationality he eventually comes to a point where reason stops and he can only go beyond through an intuitive flash. There, instead of going from a major premise and a minor premise to a conclusion, you are taking two polarized aspects of reality which are apparently giving you a paradoxical enigma, and transcending that enigma. You transcend the paradox through dialectical reasoning. So this dialectical reasoning is applied in the Bhagavad Gita just as it is applied in the Bible. In India we call it Yoga Mimamsa. Mimamsa indicates a critical enquiry; a critical enquiry which unites two opposite poles to make a total truth.


Nataraja Guru refers to the expertise meant by “reason in action” as savoir faire or know-how. Writer, Sanskritist and surrealist Rene Daumal, who surely knew the Gita, once wrote, “Art is here taken to mean knowledge realized in action.”

         A friend who has been studying yoga for some time related an opportunity to put “reason in action” into practice. Let’s call her Z. Briefly, an old friend pulled her aside one day in a fury and accused her of betraying their friendship. She was furious with Z. Like Arjuna, Z’s initial impulse was to recoil in horror and prepare to flee. She first assumed she was guilty as charged, and she began to give herself a lecture about what a horrible person she was. Then she thought, wait a minute, I don’t think I betrayed anyone. She mastered her reaction and stood her ground. First she asked if their friendship could be salvaged. Her friend said she didn’t think so. Then Z asked her to explain what was the matter. All the time she was struggling to calm herself down. As she became calmer, she began to be able to respond in helpful ways and to present her side of the story more clearly, not to mention to see her friend’s point of view dispassionately. Her friend has some personality quirks that were exaggerating the problem, and Z didn’t feel she needed to take responsibility for those. But she did take cognizance of them and worked with and around them. After a difficult half hour, Z was able to restore peace and her friend’s trust.

         This is exactly how to put the Gita’s teaching into daily practice. An uninstructed person might have started a war by hurling back defensive accusations, or else retreated with hurt feelings. The friendship might well have been broken. Z had what she described as a rare opportunity to make peace by uniting their two sides of the story. Right in the midst of “ordinary” life, such an opportunity had unexpectedly appeared. Those who become skilled in yoga will find their talents at resolving problematic situations called upon more and more, and in the bargain they can turn an initially miserable encounter into a beneficial one.


51)         By affiliation to unitive reason the wise, transcending birth bondage, renouncing benefit interest, go onward to a state beyond all pain.


         The idea here is that a well-founded reason is transcendentally important. It’s the royal road to liberation. We’re not talking about just having a better idea about mousetraps, this is tremendously liberating, affecting every aspect of our life. It’s being able to see through all the veils of half-baked beliefs and confused ideologies, which are “the dross of vagueness” of the next verse. It means turning away from the relative to the absolute foundation of consciousness, moving from chaos to calm.

That the way of wisdom will take us beyond all pain sounds like hyperbole, and perhaps it is. Maybe it should just read most pain. But the difference between duality and unity in consciousness is indeed profound, and all sorts of exotic metaphors could be used to describe it. The relief of suffering is as good as any.

         It is now scientifically established that pain is generated and experienced in the brain. Information about an injury in an extremity is relayed to the brain, where the signal is converted to an unpleasant sensation. There are plenty of examples of people in intense states of consciousness who are impervious to pain. The ninth century philosopher Shankara pointed out that when we are asleep we don’t feel pain, so something in us must be able to either shut it off or stop generating it. Certainly, suffering can be minimized, if not eliminated, if we don’t reinforce it with a negative attitude. This complex subject will be covered in more detail toward the end of the Gita.

         Birth bondage refers to our genetic makeup along with the social milieu in which we make our appearance on the stage of life. We have discussed these in detail already. It is bondage that is to be transcended, not action or life or involvement. Transcendence, as Chapter III will make clear, means freedom within the world, not removal from it.

         “Renouncing benefit interest” is the same as discarding expectations of specific fruits of action, which we have just covered. The important addition here is that the affiliation to the unitive reasoning described in the previous verse is primary, and it leads its adherents out of the bondage of local strictures and false hopes as a natural consequence. We don’t have to perform any act as a specific duty or practice; liberation arrives as a new way of being that is pretty much effortless.


52)         When your reason has transcended the dross of vagueness, then you attain to that neutral attitude, both in respect of what is to be learnt and what has already been heard.


         A very important instruction is found in this verse. The beginning student is invariably burdened with a lot of false notions, including a concrete picture of what the spiritual path holds in store. Before true learning can begin, these have to be cast aside. There is no monumental, fixed way, writ in stone anywhere, and great teachers must always chafe that their helpful suggestions wind up parroted ad infinitum and codified into scriptures to be misinterpreted to death. What has been heard in the past has now become memory, not living truth. Where one’s steps will lead is purely a subject of fantasy, not living truth. Acting on the basis of memories and fantasies is vague at best; most translations call it delusion, which it most certainly is. The adjective employed means an impervious, impenetrable thicket or heap, which aptly describes the delusion mounted by our expectations. Apparently religious fanaticism is nothing new, for this verse is a carefully worded caution against it. Fanaticism of every stripe is bred and nurtured by fixed expectations.

         The word nirvedam is almost invariably translated as indifference, meaning that ideally we should attain to indifference. Nataraja Guru has it as a neutral attitude, once again a very significant distinction. After all, verse 47 has just counseled us to not be indifferent. Indifference and vagueness may be imagined to be unwanted bedfellows. We should care very much, just not about irrelevancies. The translation here is perfectly in keeping with the instruction of the Gita on unitive action, which will be extensively elaborated in Chapters III and IV. Lest there be any doubt, Nataraja Guru unequivocally states, at II, 15, that “equanimity [is] a positive quality and not mere indifference.”

         There is also a play on words at work here. Nirvedam can also mean beyond or without the Vedas, in keeping with the anti-scriptural advice Krishna is giving in this section. We can also take it in the general sense of beyond or without religion. Religions are constrained to advertise techniques and specify goals, which can’t help but inflame expectations. “What has already been heard” and “What is to be learned,” being verbal injunctions regarding the past and the future, naturally fall away when the full presence of the Absolute is encountered here and now.

         No matter how nirvedam is interpreted, indifference is not to be taken as the correct attitude toward these matters. Krishna is beginning to teach Arjuna a secret technique of mental attunement called yoga, where outer forces and factors are counterbalanced with inner understanding, producing a dynamic and alert neutrality of mind, free of prejudice. Yogis must be active in perceiving the effect of religious and social injunctions on their mental balance, as well as examining all their desires for change and improvement. The former tend to breed guilt and dissatisfaction accompanied by self-doubt. The latter, while capable of providing direction and meaning in life, can also be debilitating if they arise from those same negative feelings—-as they very often do.


53)         When, disillusioned respecting the (contradictory injunctions of the) scriptures, your reason stands unshaken and steady in samadhi, then you shall have reached yoga.


         Krishna concludes his initial presentation of yoga masterfully, and with a verbal shaking of Arjuna for his heretofore ill-considered acquiescence to popular prejudices. One would expect a seeker of truth to have seen through at least some of that detritus before even setting out, but in an odd way it sometimes leads us to our first step. We don’t often begin to question the prevailing beliefs of our surroundings until by some quirk of fate we find ourselves on the outside looking in, or like Arjuna we are threatened with immanent annihilation.

         Buddhi, reason or intellect, is much more than the mind, which in Indian philosophy is merely the coordinator of the senses. Intellection bridges the gap between a mundane registration of the obvious and a profound spiritual vision, raising us out of the former and toward the latter. Most Western ideas of the intellect are quite limited, and are similar to the Indian concept of mind.

The exalted stature of buddhi may be grasped through the name of the Buddha, the one whose buddhi is completely awakened. In spiritual development, reason begins by exploring the mind, meaning the ordinary transactional coordinations of sensory experience. Gradually it progresses to more and more subtle fields of inquiry, learning steadiness in the face of the impacts of outrageous fortune. Only when the intellect has matured all the way to sameness, samadhi, has it achieved the yogic state of unitive reason.

         There is a widespread disdain for the intellect among spiritual seekers that is seriously misplaced. The basis for this attitude is that when the intellect is enamored of itself as the most important aspect of the psyche, it becomes ingrown and hubristic. What is at fault is really the ego that has yoked the intellect to its impoverished vision. The intellect should be treated as a vehicle to carry the self to the Self, the ego to the transcendental, and not as a buttress of our self-defense.

         The Gita regularly speaks of subduing the mind, but that doesn’t mean we should subdue our intellect. Since mind refers to the outgoing attention to sensory stimulation, the advice is to restrain that and explore the rest of what we are via contemplation. Inner examination is the domain of the intellect. Confusing these two aspects of the psyche has caused endless misery due to suppression of one of our most important attributes.

         Nataraja Guru adds “contradictory injunctions” to scripture, since ideally scripture should not be problematic. Often enough, though, a scripture will contradict itself, because it is a compendium of writings by various authors over a long period of time. What’s more, the injunctions of scripture contradict our innate wisdom and interrupt the artistic flow we are trying to attune with. Our healthy disillusionment is to see that scripture is manmade and not the “Word of God.” Knowing this, we can take it for what it’s worth, no more, no less.

         Even more important are the contradictory injunctions of the virtual scriptures known collectively as society. Here are a few examples that cause confusion based on illusions: all men are created equal, but you only have to be fair to the ones who give you something in return. Everyone is created in the image of God, yet only a select few can enter heaven or be saved. Actions are irrelevant to reach God, but you must behave yourself or else. Love your neighbor as yourself, but think nothing of killing him if he lives far enough away, beyond some hypothetical boundary. God insists on your honesty, but if you tell the truth you will lose your friends and your job. Be fair and just, but those who aren’t occupy the choice positions. Resolving paradoxes like these is essential to attaining the steadiness of samadhi, which refers to an all-embracing sameness that is the state of yogic wisdom.

There are an endless number of contradictions between what people say and what they do, and a yogi must rise above them. The thrust here is to turn away from getting your directions from religious or legal books and their purveyors and discover the truth within yourself. Truth is not contradictory; hypocrisy is.


54)         Arjuna said:

         What is the way of one whose reason is well founded, who is established in samadhi, O Krishna? How does he discourse, what is his state of being, how does he move about?


         The disciple’s initial task is to come up with probing questions and deeply ponder the answers given. In his first opportunity to fulfill his role, Arjuna shows his keen interest and respectfully prods his guru to expound more on the subject at hand.

         There are several good reasons for Arjuna to ask these seemingly banal questions. He is admitting he doesn’t yet know enough to spot a wise teacher, and he wants to avoid the enervating and even dangerous possibility of dedicating himself to a charlatan. Of course, Arjuna already has a guru par excellence. Vyasa is using him as a foil to inform the rest of us what we need to know at the outset. Distinguishing a true rishi from a clever imitation is no simple matter.

         Anyone entering a spiritual path would be wise to presume that most of the teachers they will encounter are pretenders of one sort or another. A true guru in human form is rare indeed. Though a lot of energy is spent covering up their shortcomings by their codependent sects, pretenders take advantage of trusting followers in many ways, particularly sexual and financial, and their impact is often devastating. Caveat emptor, let the buyer beware, is especially true when seeking a qualified “remover of darkness.”

         I have a friend who has made a lifetime study of Indian philosophy. A while back another friend came to visit from India who had recently been given the robes of a renunciate. At the time he was a real neophyte about Indian wisdom, but he had the clothes and the look. He was tall, dark and handsome, with an erudite-looking beard and the right cut and color of robes. My American friend is totally incognito. Although he is well versed in Indian spirituality, he wears ordinary clothes and doesn’t have a beard. Everywhere the two went, people were immediately drawn to the one who looked like a wise man, and paid no attention to the one who could have answered their questions but looked unimpressive. We are so easily deceived by appearances. An equal-minded person would have treated the two the same and quickly discovered who was the more knowledgeable, but everyone with a preconceived image of holiness was invariably drawn to the less informed fellow instead. Appearance easily cloaks substance. Clothes make the man, or at least they promote the charade.


55)         Krishna said:

         When one banishes all desires that enter the mind, Arjuna, satisfied in the Self by the Self alone, then he is said to be one of well founded reason.


         Banishing desires is another piece of advice that is often taken incorrectly at the beginning. People spend years struggling to master their normal urges, imagining that is their spiritual path. They have heard they can only appear before their God squeaky clean, so they feel guilty about aspects of themselves that are thought of as dirty. Later on, Krishna will assure us that the Absolute doesn’t care in the least about such matters. He suggests directing the attention to the Absolute instead, to the meaning that forms the skeletal structure of the world. Once that all-absorbing vision is attained, irrelevant desires fall away naturally, and those that do come up are easily dismissed. So, time spent wrestling with desires is time spent on desires, whereas time spent on the Absolute is time spent engaged in contemplation.

         Arjuna has just asked about well-founded reason (sthita prajna), and now Krishna will discourse on the subject at length. Guru Nitya Chaitanya Yati offers this on the same theme:


  Verticalization is the first thing taught by the Bhagavad Gita, in the second chapter. The verticalized state of awareness is called sthita prajna. Prajna is pure consciousness; sthita means remaining in the state of. When one becomes established in the supreme truth, the individual manifestations of the state of flux are all seen in relation to it. That stabilizes your mind and gives it a vision from within, so it is not getting swayed by the stimuli that are flowing in through the senses. It may often seem to a beginning reader of the Gita that Krishna is off the mark by speaking of sthita prajna to Arjuna. Arjuna is in the middle of the battlefield and he doesn’t know whether to shoot or not. Instead of saying anything about that, Krishna is addressing himself to the control of the senses, how to look into yourself, what the supreme nature of the Self is, and so forth. The purpose here is to bring about a verticalization. Jesus did the same thing. Before asking a man to be good to his neighbors, he said, “Love your Father, your God, with all your heart.” If you love the Father and know his fatherhood, then you will see the brotherhood. If the rhythm of life is to be appreciated, one should know the music of life, the whole symphony of it. The whole symphony of life is known by knowing the vertical principle. (Therapy and Realization in the Bhagavad Gita)


         Withdrawing the senses (and mind) from sense objects means turning away from external stimuli to engage the intellect. It is almost never a full time activity: it is how we are able to perform concentrated reflection or contemplation. When driving a car or playing a sport, for instance, the mind should most definitely be attuned to what the senses register.

         Well-founded reason is thought that isn’t prejudiced by appearances, or one’s likes and dislikes. Detachment means undoing attachments, pulling the hooks and arrows of previous conditioning out of our flesh, allowing a much fuller appreciation of life. It is not the blocking of experience by preventing sensory stimulation from reaching the brain somehow. That would be inaction, discredited by the Gita as unhelpful and also impossible, short of coma.

         Here’s a concrete example. Imagine you’re a trial lawyer, and you’ve got a guilty defendant, a real skuzzball. At the trial you make sure he shows up in a nice new suit and tie, fresh haircut, glasses, and a copy of The City of God by St. Augustine under his arm to peruse during recess. You know perfectly well the judge will have a harder time throwing the book at him if he looks like a harmless fellow who strayed just this once, than if he has “hardened criminal” written all over him. The jury is also inevitably affected by these strictly cosmetic tricks. They are deceived by their senses, even against their will. But at least a wise judge and jury will strive to leave appearances out of their decision as much as possible. They will try to look at the “facts”, and come to a conclusion based solely on the merits of the case. If they can do this, their reason is well-founded; if they are prejudiced by some tangential matter then their reason is poorly founded, precisely to the extent that it is diverted from the facts.

         Of course, facts become mighty fuzzy the closer you look at them, but what else do we have to work with? The point is to bring your best scientific attitude to bear on the problem and not be conned by your habitual preferences and expectations, no matter how much you admire them.

         Speaking of science, how many experiments are warped by the expectations of the experimenters? The answer is: all of them. Even with rigorous safeguards, expectations demonstrably skew the results, and a lot of thought goes into programming ways to circumvent their impact. In the current climate it’s even worse: so-called scientists are inveigled by vested interests into supporting foregone conclusions, and throwing out any results that deviate from the expectations of the underwriters of the experiment. Sadly, we give in to fads all the time, in a million ways we aren’t even conscious of.

         Okay, here’s another example. You see a gorgeous babe of your preferred gender in the distance, and your heart gives a leap. A half billion years of sexual evolution has packed you with plenty of motivation. You start to have fantasies based on the deep-seated urge which has just surfaced. As you walk closer, reality (well-founded reason) starts to kick in. S/he is actually flawed, where before s/he was perfect in your imagination. You start to consider the inconvenience and complications of having a relationship, and as you get close enough to see the “warts” you recognize this is an ordinary human being, who you may cherish in an abstract way, but who holds little interest for you. The zing! of desire has been dissipated by sensible reasoning, and will no longer lead you to make an entangling choice.

         This kind of thing is happening all the time, not just with sexuality, though that’s maybe the most obvious. Literally millions of psychologists working for the advertising and propaganda industries throughout the twentieth century have studied just how to catch your attention and get you to buy their product or their line of BS. Long before advertising existed, humans were susceptible to outside manipulation, or else Krishna wouldn’t have brought it up back in 500 BCE or whenever it was. If we don’t consciously counteract those influences we are bound to be led astray.

         Finally, Nataraja Guru says this about verse 55:


The first thing that happens to a man who begins to tread the path of the contemplative consists in his disaffiliation from the various desires with which he is attached to different grades of relativistic values in everyday life. Such desires are meant to include all those which are capable of entering into or affecting the mind…. A man who purposely or actively searches for objects of desire falls outside the scope of contemplation altogether.


56)         He whose mind is unaffected by mishaps, who on happy occasions too evinces no interest, rising above attachment, anxiety or anger—such a sage-recluse is said to be of well founded reason.


         Here we have one of the most misunderstood concepts of all, detachment. It is often held that you should remain “uninterested” in relation to happy and sad occasions, more commonly called pain and pleasure. This has been taken to an extreme in several forms of Hindu and Buddhist practice, not to mention other religions, including the religion of science, as though even noticing that anything extra-rational is going on is somehow unspiritual or unscientific. Animals and people are not supposed to have feelings, or if they do, they are irrelevant. We should take it as a given that the Gita does not intend anything of the sort.

         First of all, the translation is a bit extreme, and I’m tempted to change it, yet it does reflect how people think about the subject. Radhakrishnan’s version is more instructive: “He whose mind is untroubled in the midst of sorrows and is free from eager desire amid pleasures….” Good on him! The Sanskrit word used definitely gives the sense of craving, of strong lust for pleasure, and does not imply that normal reactions, including enjoyment, are to be ruled out. The point is to pare away all excessive carrying on, both about our troubles and our triumphs. We all know people who aren’t happy unless they are complaining about something or whining about their personal problems, and we know others who are boastful about their successes. Arjuna himself was a bit undone at the outset of his present conflict, even, and tempted to lose hope. Fortunately his feelings prompted him to take a great leap forward and consult a guru. If he had ignored them he would have stayed where he was.

What’s meant here is that a spiritual aspirant should always separate the kernel of truth from the chaff of padded emotions and beliefs, discarding everything excessive. That should make what’s left over even more clear and valuable. So, after reacting normally to an event, including tearing our hair and screaming and crying if it’s appropriate, we should lay the business to rest and regain our cool. Simple enough? If it really were easy our world would be filled with sage-recluses, but such is not the case. Humans easily get stuck in tangential thoughts and emotions. We repeat our miseries, cravings and misapprehensions endlessly. There will be more in the next several verses to help hone our understanding of detachment in a spiritual sense.

         All our motivation boils down to striving for happiness, though it might well be hidden by rationalizations and excuses, by shoulds and oughts. We adopt many ideas that are opposed to happiness, but this is because someone has convinced us that they will in fact lead to happiness somewhere down the road. An honest spiritual teacher might do this with a beneficial aim in mind, while a charlatan would prefer you to unwittingly strive for their own personal benefit. Each seeker must sort this out independently, by not taking anything for granted, and by searching questioning and intuitive thinking.

         The happy occasions that we are directed to ignore are the flip side of mishaps. Note that both are things that happen to us, positively and negatively. Their synthesis is well-founded reason, which rises above the immediate impact of events to understand their full meaning. It does not hold on to the one and reject the other, but dispassionately assesses their value and acts accordingly.

Happiness as the flip side of sadness is clearly not an eternal or absolute value. Anything with an opposite is not absolute. Happiness as a condition either opposed to or causing someone else’s unhappiness is relativistic and therefore superficial. Only by uniting opposites in a dialectic union or yoga is the true, unconditioned Happiness achieved. In this verse the state of true happiness is equated with well founded reason.

         Physicist Robert Oppenheimer once said that trying to achieve happiness is like trying to invent a machine whose only feature was that it would run silently. He was speaking of the dualistic happiness, of course, because every action makes noise, and action to erase action is absurd. True happiness, which is a byproduct of reason well-centered in the Absolute, makes our clunky and noisy psychosomatic “machine” run at top efficiency. It doesn’t shut it off.

         The three afflictions mentioned here and elsewhere in the Gita are usually translated along the lines of desire, fear and anger, but Nataraja Guru’s version, attachment, anxiety and anger, offers shades of meaning that pertain more to contemplative life. As he says: “The trio are organically related to the subject inasmuch as they make contemplation impossible of being even initiated.” Furthermore, he reminds us “The attempt here is merely to remove impediments to contemplation and not to teach virtues.” Detachment is achieved by removing impediments, while not suppressing valuable stimuli.


57)         He who remains in all cases unattached on gaining such or such desirable-undesirable end, who neither welcomes anything nor rejects in anger—-his reason is well founded.


         There are many subtleties surrounding detachment, but for now I’d like to mention the main difference between Vedanta philosophy as taught by the Gita and how it is typically interpreted in the popular imagination. In order to break the karmic cycle, where actions lead to attachments and attachments lead to circumscribed actions, endlessly, many Buddhists and Hindus recommend detachment. This is often interpreted to mean erecting a barrier against emotionally-charged experience, since the world is seen as a false projection, hostile to some unearthly “enlightenment.” If you get drawn into involvement with the world, you remain caught. Perhaps this is useful in some ways, especially as a beginning step if we are caught up in a lot of junk, but it can easily produce a state of obliviousness that is far from spiritual. The Gita’s method is to turn to the light rather than trying to cover up the darkness. It teaches being fully open to experience, but not to seek to abandon ourselves to it.

         Being ecstatically alive means at the very least being cognizant of what’s going on around you. Training yourself to not react to events engenders psychic numbness and mimics death. Vedanta recognizes that such an attitude can easily be the negative side of positive attraction, and as such equally delusional. The correction for this is to embrace experience as an expression of the Absolute with wholehearted participation, but then to not hold on to the “afterglow” except perhaps as a useful lesson. You don’t dwell on the past, but move on. Storing up experiences as memories that feed the ego is deleterious, but expansive memories related to the Big Picture are valuable not only in avoiding future mistakes but in intelligently guiding our steps.

         The popular catchword is “live in the now.” That’s fine, so long as the now contains the past and the future. The now taken in isolation, detached from memories, is a kind of living death.

         Musicologist Clive Waring has possibly the worst case of amnesia ever recorded, and is completely unable to create long term memories. His condition is utterly disabling and a living hell, consisting of days that are an endless series of “waking up for the first time” moments. If you are tempted to fantasize living solely in the present, watch the documentary of Mr. Waring.

         What being here now really means is that we should discard regrets about the past and anxiety about the future, which can bog down our consciousness with distracting and unpleasant sidetracks that we can do nothing about. Many people are disabled by a variety of distracting thoughts, and learning to detach from them is therapeutic in many ways. It allows us to be more present and have more intensely positive experiences.

         The bottom line is, please enjoy life. Drink life to the dregs, but also understand its projections and delusions, which are legion. Then, after thoroughly experiencing something, let it go. Don’t hold on to echoes of experience in your mind. They are preventing you from being present for the next occurrence. In contemplation it’s very helpful to review your experience, but not while you’re in the thick of things. Be alive to what’s happening, and ponder it later. Learn to move on from the feelings that catch hold of you in a static way, that induce repetition compulsions.

         It’s tragic that the idea has caught on from verses like this one that you should avoid experience, avoid life. Why bother to put on a body at all, if you aren’t going to have fun in it? How will you feel if you get to the end of your life (which could be at any moment) and you look back and say to yourself that you were able to not do anything? How very “spiritual”! You managed to not love, to not admire the wonders of nature, never heard the great music or visited the museums, never created anything beautiful or useful. That’s what Arjuna proposed as a solution to his dilemma back in the first chapter, and Krishna told him, “No way! Get back in the game and play it for everything you’re worth.”

         A young American with Buddhist leanings, whose mother was very ill, once asked me “If my mother dies, what should I do? How do I keep from being sad?” I told him “Go ahead and cry. Feel how sad it is. Miss her.” It can’t be helpful to be stifling your natural legitimate emotions. It’s just crazy. This notion needs to be discarded with all the other false ones. Just open your heart to what’s going on. Live the moment. You can philosophize about it later if you wish.

         Now get out there and have some fun, and in the process make somebody else happy too.


58)         Again, when, as a tortoise retracts its limbs from all sides, the senses are withdrawn from objects of sense interest—-his reason is well founded.


         Thought is the link that connects the senses at one pole to the coordinating self at the other. The Gita’s advice to turn away from sense interests is intended to free the self so it can soar high, since it is not always glued onto objects in the environment. Yet the self doesn’t stay exclusively in the abstract, either. The idea is to synthesize, not to choose one pole or the other. Someone who is only thinking of perceivable matters is wholly bound to necessity, continually reacting to outside input. But going to the opposite extreme is not the solution; it produces the egg-headed, overly-abstracted professor type that is widely lampooned. The healthiest route is an admixture of horizontal and vertical factors, of the transactional and the theoretical, where each feeds and tempers the other. That is truly “reason in action,” or yoga.

         In order to have an inner vision of connection one naturally restrains the senses and focuses on the intellect or the heart or whatever you like to call it. Whenever you think hard or contemplate something, this happens automatically. On the other hand, if your senses are calling for attention, it makes you fidget and get distracted. Substantial effort is required to develop one’s concentration so it becomes steadier and more reliable. This verse is merely describing this necessary aspect of meditation in a poetic way. There is no reason to be alarmed that the Gita is asking us to turn off the senses and leave them off. They are absolutely essential to our life, but are only the jumping off point for the development of intelligence.

         The deceptiveness of the senses is well known. Scientists and philosophers alike have learned to be wary of sense impressions from the earliest antiquity, and yet the convincing nature of what we perceive, especially what we see, is undeniable. In order to be certain of our knowledge, we absolutely must analyze the data flooding into the system from a detached perspective. Only when all significant errors are deleted can our reason be considered “well founded.”

         The consensual nature of perceived reality has been called into question in the so-called postmodern era of deconstruction, which in some ways resembles the yogic wisdom discipline of the Gita. To give just one example:


We do not however see our retinal images: as is well known, although we see the world as right-way-up, the image on our retina is inverted; we have two slightly discrepant retinal images, but see only one image; we make mental allowances for the known relative sizes of objects which override the actual relative sizes of their own images on our retina; we also make allowances for perspectival effects such as foreshortening, the foundation of the erroneous popular judgement that such effects in photography are ‘distortions’; our eyes operate in scanning movements, and the body is itself generally in motion, such stable objects as we see are therefore abstracted from an ongoing phenomenal flux, moreover, attention to such objects ‘out there’ in the material world is constantly subverted as wilful concentration dissolves into involuntary association, and so on. (‘Seeing Sense’, in The End of Art Theory: Criticism and Postmodernity [London, 1986], p.52). As quoted in The Spoken Image: Photography and Language, by Clive Scott (Reaktion Books, 1999) The citation is in support of his point that “Realism is something our perceptual culture has educated, or persuaded, us into.” (p. 9)


59)         Objective interests revert without the relish for them on starving the embodied of them. Even the residual relish reverts on the One Beyond being sighted.


         The One Beyond is a poetic term for the Absolute. The gist here is that we may struggle mightily to break free of our fascination with and entanglement in the world around us, and at best we can only partly solve this dilemma. Once we enter rapport with the Absolute, however, there is no need to strive for any achievement. The bliss of the connection is so absorbing that our mundane attachments rapidly lose their attractiveness. Anyone who has had a psychedelic or other transcendental experience knows exactly how this feels.

         From a practical standpoint, before enlightenment yogis counterbalance all their anomalies by intentionally supplying the opposite anomaly, and this helps establish neutrality. After enlightenment, the neutral state of samadhi prevails as an unshakable reality, so the same anomalies may arise but they quickly lose substance, dissipating into the neutral ground.

         For example, if some characteristic of a person produces a negative gut reaction, the ordinary person believes it is because the other person is despicable and leaves it at that. The yogi knows that such a reaction is an unfair prejudice on their part, and offsets it by assuring themselves that the person has all the good qualities of the rest of us, but has perhaps suffered excessively or simply chosen a different path. Maybe they’re only shaped differently. In this way the negative reaction is minimized and replaced by understanding. With practice, once a neutral attitude has become the norm, everyone appears just as they are. There is no negativity to counteract. Or positivity, in the opposite instance of undue attraction.

         Glowing pictures of heroic seekers struggling mightily to subdue their corporeal interests make exciting scriptural tales, and have caught the public imagination in various eras. Just as often, when the charm of the struggle wears off and the drudgery of excluding enjoyment in life takes over, this is the stage where many abandon the game. They might even tell themselves that spirituality is stupid, so as to excuse their change of heart. But all they’ve really done is throw out a false notion, a religious fantasy. The drudgery was a message from their inner guru that they were on the wrong track to begin with.

         Krishna is saying, sure you can starve yourself of pleasures as a way to get over an obsession with objects, but this is a hard road. Paradoxically, pushing something away can make it grow in importance, become secretly more desirable. The better way is to come to know the Absolute, which is so absorbingly interesting that mere objects no longer convey the thrill they once did. We extinguish the torch we are using once the sun comes up. The bliss of the Absolute puts mere transitory enjoyments to shame; more, it infuses every experience with meaning and joy so that they are even more fun.

         Recent neuroscientific discoveries show that Krishna’s advice in this verse reflects exactly how the brain works. Rewiring is going on all the time, as new interests supplant old ones. But struggling to remove old neural connections actually strengthens the existing wiring. The most effective method to change, then, is to attend to the new and allow the old pathways to wither away on their own. This will be discussed in more detail in VI, 36.

         This concept has very practical implications, which can save us from wasting a lifetime in futilely combating our demons. For example, the persistence of addiction has perennially bedeviled societies. Before it was banned, LSD showed excellent prospects for curing alcohol dependency, and ibogaine has shown similar results with a wide variety of addictive substances. Psychedelics owe their efficacy in lifting obsessive users out of their addictions by imparting a vision of the Absolute, or in other words, restoring them to a sense of being a worthy person. The One Beyond is actually who we are. Once it has been glimpsed, it is so much more attractive than the mediocre palliatives currently being abused that the person immediately turns away from them. Without this inspirational factor to upgrade the object of desire, battling addiction is frequently a lifelong struggle. Many socially acceptable programs invoke a higher power, but exactly what that is remains abstract and theoretical, and therefore much less potent that it might be if it were “glimpsed.” Psychedelic medicines are convincing enough to make the theory of a higher power seem extraordinarily real.

         In a sense we are all addicted to our habitual interpretations of reality, and they can be as draining of our psychic energy and sabotaging of our expertise as actual drugs. To counteract this type of dependency, the ancients used a psychedelic substance called soma, which we will examine in detail in Chapter XI. Although he wasn’t a drug addict, soma worked for Arjuna by thoroughly convincing him of the validity of Krishna’s teachings, helping to free him from his bondage to conventional mental frames.

         Another good practical example, and one which has a connection to verse 41, where “well-founded reasoning is unitive, but many branched and endless are the reasonings of them in whom reason is ill-founded,” is the nearly universal creed to love everyone equally, friend and foe alike. If you are already established in a state of love, blissfully attuned to the Absolute, then nothing could be simpler than to love everyone and everything around you. But if you are striving to love people only because of religious instruction or personal dedication, and don’t actually feel it, everyone you meet is a separate challenge for you to rise to the state of love for them. Some will be easy and some nearly impossible, and the latter force you to strain mightily to find even a shred of love in your heart. They will drive you nuts instead! Probably they are the ones who need love the most, but that is another issue.

         For this reason the Gita recommends seeking the One Beyond first, and all else becomes perfectly simple and natural. The Bible teaches the same thing, though with a more materialistic cast: “But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.” (Matt. 6:33, also Luke 12:31.)


60)         Even with a man of wisdom, Arjuna, in spite of his effort, excited sense interests can forcibly distract the mind.


         The modern world is drenched in sensory overload. The visceral stimulation engendered by sensory stimuli is enjoyable in the short term, but if that’s all there is it is like having a diet of only desserts—or only alcohol. Stimuli must be processed into a coherent understanding of life and our place in it. At an early stage of spiritual development, the mind rises above its fascination with stimuli to search for meaning.

         Computers have gone even beyond television as a source of sensory excitement, because there can be degrees of participation with other people or at least interaction with intelligent-seeming programs. Many users spend all their free time at the computer in a state similar to drug addiction, dazzled by imaginary existences that appear far more interesting than those offered by their drab surroundings. In a world trained to think of sense input as the be-all and end-all of existence, it is hard to enunciate what is wrong with computer addiction. Only those who lose a loved one to it can tell that something is amiss. It makes them suspect a level of solid reality—something that really matters—must exist amidst the chaos of sensory stimulation.

         Kurt Vonnegut’s viciously hilarious short story Harrison Bergeron depicts a future society where intelligent people have tiny radios implanted in their ear that make distracting noises at frequent intervals to keep them from putting two and two together, thus making everyone equally incompetent. It’s a perfect method for controlling the populace. In real life we do this to ourselves and don’t require a Handicapper General to enforce it: we have learned to interrupt our trains of thought at the half-developed stage.

         Intelligence and wisdom need long stretches of careful thinking to flourish, but rapid-fire sensory distractions can seem like adequate substitutes. This is one more venue where the conditions of verse 69 prevail, where night and day are reversed for seekers of truth and seekers of kicks. Ordinary mentality seeks sensory stimulation as its highest goal, while the wise contemplative takes it in small doses, preferring to be excited by understanding and/or bipolarity with the Absolute.


61)         Restraining every one of them, he should rest unitively established, having Me for his Supreme ideal. He in whom sense interests are subdued—-his reason is well founded.


         As noted earlier, a hasty reading of this section leads many to believe that all sensory stimulation is to be suppressed, to make room for spiritual inspiration. Not so! Moderate amounts of input are essential as food for thought and enjoyment. What are to be restrained are excited sense interests, not sense interests per se. The adjective used means harassing, troubling or tormenting.

         Krishna is teaching Arjuna how to concenter his mind, to achieve one-pointed attention. But this doesn’t mean that we must screen out the world all the time. That is an unwarranted conclusion. When we are meditating or pondering we need to detach from sense impulses, but at other times they keep us healthy and normal. Repressing them leads to exaggerations of the psyche. They become ever more powerful obsessions until they break through into overt expression. Better to give them their due, as the rest of the chapter attempts to instruct. We continue to “move amid sense interests” while not allowing them to run away with us.

         Recent scientifically rigorous studies of “mindfulness,” which basically means paying more attention rather than less, have demonstrated improvements in health and mood. This may be due to release of repressions, along with the salubrious effect of being alert and attuned to the environment. It is by no means contradictory to subdue interest in sensory stimulation in order to become more aware of the world—that is exactly the point.

         Aggressive people aren’t generally spiritually inclined, but many of them pay lip service to some scripture or other as a means of increasing their power and influence over true believers. Arjuna himself may be said to be an aggressive or at least active type, though hardly manipulative. The advice here is perfectly germane for such people. Instead of simply plunging ahead with the program you have impulsively chosen, you should take time to consider how both you and others will be impacted by your actions, and not just consider but really put yourself in their place and see how it looks from various angles. You have to detach yourself from your urges to press ahead in order to be able to do this. It may be that your program is perfectly acceptable, or maybe not; but you have to restrain your immediate impulses in order to be sure.

         This also suggests a strategy to those impacted by aggressive behavior. Fighting back on the aggressor’s own terms only increases the polarization and makes the problem worse. But if you can find a way to present your humanity to them, to get them to see the wounds they are inflicting, they might learn to restrain themselves. This was the key to success of India’s nonviolent resistance to the British in the struggle for independence. Unfortunately, it requires at least a minimum of humanity on the part of the aggressor, and this is not always available. But it must be presumed, lest you fall into the trap of demonizing your enemy to legitimize your own viciousness.

         This verse is the first of many times that Krishna speaks of “Me.” It is crucial to be aware that he is speaking of his nature as the Absolute, not as some particular entity or—-heaven forbid—-god. As we encounter this “Me” throughout the Gita, we will see it described in the most expansive possible terms. Simple minds down through the ages have identified the unlimited Absolute with various incarnations and characters from scriptures, not realizing that these are merely symbols of the One Beyond. This leads to a pathetic kind of contest between Jesus and Allah and Buddha and Krishna and Jehovah as to who is really the true one, while all others are relegated to the domain of falsehood. The bottom line is that whatever way you conceive of the Absolute limits it to precisely that. The Absolute being unlimited, partisanship is necessarily false in every case.

         The Gita definitely directs the disciple to view the mysterious, transcendent and unlimited Absolute as the supreme ideal. It is tragic that Krishna has been made out as a god, dragging this superlative scripture down under the influence of parochial concerns.

         The second part of the verse flows out of the first. When you are able to see the Absolute in all things, your attention is drawn to a deeper level than sensory awareness, conditioned as it is by the impact of vibrations on different types of skin, such as tongues and eardrums. Intellection is pure when it is independent of sensory distractions. In a world where feelings constantly clamor for attention, it takes some effort to quiet them down and hold fast to clear thinking. Sensory preferences prejudice the mind, leading to the disaster described in the next two verses.


62)         Meditating on objects of sense-interest there is born in man an attachment for them; from attachment rises passion; in the face of passion (frustrated) arises rage.


         Attachment is a very subtle business that gradually creeps up on us without our being conscious of it. At first we are merely amused or entertained by something, so we repeat the experience. We grow to like it. Before long it becomes a need, then in some cases an addiction or obsession, but we don’t particularly notice because it’s our preference. We identify with it, especially if it resonates with our genetic propensities and habits (vasanas and samskaras) in the depths of our being.

         For a variety of reasons, some amusements are more binding than others. We usually learn about these when we try to stop reinforcing them and find that we have hooks in us that make it much harder to relinquish than it should be. The belief that this means the behavior is therefore good for us is off the mark; we can be hooked by both beneficial and harmful interests. Krishna will show where the deleterious ones lead, and it’s up to each of us to observe whether we are sliding down a slippery slope or not. Since we are masters of denial, it doesn’t hurt to have a guru or other advisor to alert us to the bad news. It is famously hard medicine to swallow the criticism when someone tells us we are going wrong, and our ego will likely shape shift into a parade of demons to resist it. And as Freud put it, even the willing patient will instinctively push the dentist away when he approaches their mouth brandishing his pliers.

         Here’s how the process of attachment works. In the normal course of becoming separate individuals, early on we retain a neutral balance in our nature, but very soon we learn to move toward our likes and away from our dislikes. This is where imbalance becomes possible. We can’t always escape what we don’t like and we can’t always have what we do like. Frustration sets in, followed by manipulation and scheming to get “ours.” Even small children can be seen to become violently angry when they don’t get their way. Later they adopt “tricks” to coerce their caretakers into granting their requests. Adults retain these coercive attitudes, though they are usually much better disguised by civilized behavior. But just try to get an addict to undergo treatment, for instance, and the civilized part falls away quickly enough.

         Becoming enraged is only the beginning.


63)         From rage is produced distortion of values, from distortion of values memory-lapse, from memory-lapse comes loss of reason, and from loss of reason he perishes.


         When we’re angry we act solely for our own interests. Granting the other person their due drops out of the picture entirely. We’re ready to fight dirty, to cheat and use any subterfuge to fulfill our desires. For example, if you accidentally bump into someone on the street, you say “excuse me” and they nod and pass on. But if the person is filled with rage, they will take it as a personal, intentional affront. They’ll want to fight you, no matter how eloquently you apologize. The Gita calls such overreactions the distortion of values.

         Distortion of values means we rate what we think or want as more important than our friends’ perspective no matter how right they are and wrong we are. In chronic cases it permits us to be unfair to others, so we can rationalize taking what isn’t our rightful share. Politicians and egotists occupy this territory as a matter of course, but we all go there at times, and once you have gotten to the stage where your anger overwhelms your good sense, you are in big trouble.

         Pretty early in the process of pursuing our likes and avoiding our dislikes we lose awareness of the connecting link within the dual back and forth movement. Heads and tails are taken in isolation and are no longer seen as parts of a single coin. As soon as we are no longer conscious of the underlying harmony, we have become “normal.” We have forgotten our inner balance, and know only the manifested world of separateness. We are “lost” in a sense, though we can never truly be lost. Forgetting our connection with the divine ground that connects everything doesn’t make it cease to exist, fortunately for us.

         Loss of reason is the perishing referred to. You don’t actually die from stupidity—sometimes we wish somebody would—but your mental balance perishes. Recall that unitive reason is the goal of the yoga that Krishna is presenting at the moment, and now we learn that meditating on items of sense-interest is what kills it. Nataraja Guru adds that it is the contemplative state of mind that perishes, not the man himself. There is nothing to be done but sleep it off and resolve to start over in the morning. It’s not necessarily a fatal delirium, if we are resolved to change where we direct our attention.


64)         But he whose Self is subdued, whose attachment and aversion are both within the sway of the Self, although his senses still move amidst sense-interests, he wends toward a state of spiritual clarity.


         Verse 64 is very interesting. The popular belief that spirituality achieves otherworldly states of mind is unequivocally ruled out in the yoga of the Gita. Your senses still move amidst sense interests, yet you are slowly trending towards clarity of mind. You are still playing the game, fully engaged. The detachment that’s happening is that you’re sorting out the true from the false and discarding the false. You are experiencing life in all its fullness, and it’s even fuller because you have thrown out the garbage. But there is no final moment of clarity when you become someone else. It’s an open-ended process of returning to yourself.

         Notice that verses 64 and 65 form an inverse match with 62 and 63. In the earlier verses, sensory attraction leads via a series of increasingly negative stages to disaster. In the second pair, those same sensory factors are prevented from disrupting the state of contemplation by conscious intervention, thus leading by a series of positive stages to a properly established intelligence.

         Central to this clarifying process is the restraint of attractions and repulsions that threaten to carry us away. We can still savor every bite of our food, it’s just that we don’t gobble it as if we are starving or push it away without tasting it.

         A balanced outlook is the initial goal of the disciple at this stage of the instruction. The entire second half of this chapter is dedicated to extricating Arjuna from his unexamined beliefs and getting him to stand on his own two feet with what is called the mental state of well-founded reason. When it is claimed that yoga is reason in action in verse 50, the Gita isn’t kidding. Although the second half is titled Yoga, it is all about becoming clearheaded, meaning escaping from the miasma of murky beliefs that constitute ordinary thinking and attaining what we nowadays would call a scientific or broadly philosophic attitude.


65)         By spiritual clarity there takes place the effacement for him of all sufferings, and for one whose spirit has become lucid, very soon reason becomes properly founded.


         This is a very straightforward verse, so it’s a little odd that Nataraja Guru has rendered cetasah as spirit, as it refers to awareness or thought. His intent is simply spirit in the sense of consciousness. The idea is that when our thoughts become lucid, very soon reason becomes properly founded. It’s almost a tautology, in that spiritual clarity and well-founded reason are basically the same thing: intelligence grounded in a universal vision.

         A lot of yoga practice consists of rooting out the subtle distortions in thinking that lead to erroneous conclusions. This should be tempered by the advice of verse 59, where awareness of the Absolute is seen as the ultimate clarifying factor. Once we have become spiritually clear, all else follows. In fact, in true advaita, nondualism, there is no time lapse at all, so what follows isn’t even subsequent.

         The effacement of suffering spoken of makes it sound like lucidity magically does away with all the problems of life. Hardly. What it means is that contact with the Absolute is to be adhered to in both good times and bad. The degree of suffering we experience is in direct proportion to our illusory sense of separation, and when that vanishes we regain our native state of oneness. This certainly mitigates the pain, removing all exaggeration from it, but that’s all.

         While it does seem that some sages are guided by an invisible hand of instinct to avoid trouble, most of them are well known to have endured great suffering. Some have even “lost faith” temporarily because of the excruciating pain they were undergoing. So glib clichés about the cessation of all suffering or everlasting serenity are misleading. Troubles last as long as awareness persists, at any rate. This may well be the cause of the lightly veiled death wish found in many belief systems. If you are aware, there is pain, therefore you should seek to do away with awareness. Need it be said how devastating such concepts are?

         The flip side of believing that realization banishes suffering is that if someone suffers, it must be because they are unrealized. This leads to a tendency to blame people for their troubles even when they have done nothing whatsoever to deserve them, which is a harsh and callous attitude in the extreme. Curiously, this superstitious belief is faithfully held by materialists almost as firmly as the credulous. Most of what happens to us is both outside our control and beyond our comprehension, though we do have a say in what we make of it. Knowing this naturally makes us compassionate. Believing everyone deserves what they get is a way of blocking out reality, of turning our backs on life’s conflicts. We do it because we fear the unknown, not for any excuse we make to rationalize our aversion.

         Really, seeking to do away with suffering is off the mark, in that we learn and grow from overcoming obstacles. That means a yogi should no more avoid obstacles than manufacture them. Instead, we should meet life head on, in whatever aspect presents itself to us. The wording here is that we should aim for spiritual clarity, and that has a side effect of mitigating suffering, not that doing away with suffering is the goal. This is an important distinction, since a life without suffering is likely to be vapid and prosaic. Compassion comes from knowing from personal experience how other people feel, not from smugly pitying them as fools.

         Brain studies have revealed that we learn through negative feedback, gradually adjusting our behavior toward more positive states of mind. Without suffering, it turns out, we don’t learn. As Jonah Lehrer puts it, “When the mind is denied the emotional sting of losing, it never figures out how to win.” (47) He adds:


The physicist Niels Bohr once defined an expert as “a person who has made all the mistakes that can be made in a very narrow field.” From the perspective of the brain, Bohr was absolutely right. Expertise is simply the wisdom that emerges from cellular error. Mistakes aren’t things to be discouraged. On the contrary, they should be cultivated and carefully investigated. (51)


         The philosophy of the Gita is about feeling and living to the maximum, in concert with our fellows. A well-founded reason would envisage no less.


66)         For one unbalanced there can be no reason, nor is there any creative intuition for the unbalanced, and for one incapable of creative intuition there could be no peace, and for the unpeaceful where could there be happiness?


         When the mind is in balance, the floodgates of intuition open. Intuition implies “teaching from within,” in other words contemplating the inner source of knowledge, as opposed to familiar outer sources. Krishna tells Arjuna here that the creative intuition that comes from the balanced state leads to peace and happiness. It’s a little convoluted because of being expressed negatively, but that’s the gist.

         Modern scientific studies have demonstrated that wrestling with a problem and then putting the mind in neutral via rest or a mental vacation is an often-successful strategy to find solutions. Yogic meditation does the same thing, stilling the mental chatter while engaging seldom-accessed parts of the mind that can provide intuitive insights. Finding a way to break out of habitual patterns is another key to what is sometimes called the eureka phenomenon, when long-sought solutions finally emerge into consciousness. While being newly discovered by scientific observation, these are mainstream ideas from the ancient world, spelled out here and elsewhere.

         Issac Asimov, a hardheaded materialist if there ever was one, coined the term “eureka phenomenon” and wrote an essay about it. Here are a couple of excerpts:


It is my belief… that thinking is a double phenomenon like breathing.

  You can control breathing by deliberate voluntary action: you can breathe deeply and quickly, or you can hold your breath altogether, regardless of the body's needs at the time. This, however, doesn't work well for very long. Your chest muscles grow tired, your body clamors for more oxygen, or less, and you relax. The automatic involuntary control of breathing takes over, adjusts it to the body's needs, and unless you have some respiratory disorder, you can forget about the whole thing.

  Well, you can think by deliberate voluntary action, too, and I don't think it is much more efficient on the whole than voluntary breath control is. You can deliberately force your mind through channels of deductions and associations in search of a solution to some problem and before long you have dug mental furrows for yourself and find yourself circling round and round the same limited pathways. If those pathways yield no solution, no amount of further conscious thought will help.

  On the other hand, if you let go, then the thinking process comes under automatic involuntary control and is more apt to take new pathways and make erratic associations you would not think of consciously. The solution will then come while you think you are not thinking.

  It is my feeling that it helps to relax, deliberately, by subjecting your mind to material complicated enough to occupy the voluntary faculty of thought, but superficial enough not to engage the deeper involuntary one…. I suspect it is the involuntary faculty of thought that gives rise to what we call "a flash of intuition," something that I imagine must be merely the result of unnoticed thinking….


Not at all dissimilar to creative intuition, isn’t it? He goes on to suspect that scientists routinely invent a logical train of thought after the fact to explain their intuition, because they don’t want to admit the existence of accidental inspiration, so this simple technique remains a secret.

         Essential to the process is that you have to have some idea of what you are searching for before intuition can open up any new insights. Scientific rigor is a springboard for intuition to dive off of. First “break your brain” wrestling with the problem, but then let it rest and discover new avenues without your intentional guidance. After all, you don’t know exactly where you are going, so why should you be the guide? Having faith in the potential for wisdom through intuition helps foster it too.


         This is one of those verses where the translation matters very much, tipping us off to the mindset of the translator as much as the Gita’s intent. I like to compare versions at places like this, because the high value of Nataraja Guru’s makes it stand out. What it lacks in poetry is more than made up for by its accuracy and freedom from dogma.

         Removing the negatives, the first part of the verse basically reads “balance permits reason,” and “balance is necessary for creative intuition” (bhavana).

         The word for balance comes from the same root as yoga, and refers to the equalizing or uniting of opposites that is being taught by Krishna. Digging into my pile of Gita commentaries, the emphasis on conscious manipulation of the process stands out. Radhakrishnan calls balance ‘control’, Stephen Mitchell and George Thompson use ‘discipline’, Annie Besant has it as ‘harmonized’, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi says one who is ‘established’, and my religious version from the Gita Press, Gorakpur, uses ‘control of mind and senses’. Balancing may well include all these other terms in its purview, but it is more subtle and nuanced than ordinary control measures, which tend to draw the practitioner away from creative intuition. Substituting the terms highlights the orientation of these typical translations. Nataraja Guru says balancing of opposites is yoga, which to my mind is just perfect. Try ‘control of opposites’ or ‘discipline of opposites’. Besant’s ‘harmonization of opposites’ is the only one in the ballpark, though the Maharishi’s ‘established in the Self’ might carry the same sense except it doesn’t tell us how to get there.

         The word Nataraja Guru has translated as creative intuition, bhavana, stems from the root ‘to become’. It’s worth borrowing his comments about this: “Peace results only when intuition comes into operation, along lines of creative becoming, which reconciles opposing tendencies of the mind. Real happiness is the result of a global sense of being where currents and counter-currents are stilled in happiness, which can be said to be the goal of contemplation.” There is a real sense of gentleness in this, delicately nudging instead of controlling.

         Nataraja Guru’s “creative becoming” in his comments is an even better translation than creative intuition. It refers to that happy state when one insight leads to another deeper insight, and then to another and another, as we follow up the implications of each one. Opening ourselves with a balanced mind to the spectacularly fertile insights of our unconscious, we enjoy a contemplative flow that at its best expresses itself as wisdom.

         We have already noted that bhavana, creative intuition, comes as a result of the state of balance. In other words, it is the outcome of the very practice Krishna is recommending, of yoga. Creative intuition is what we get from the practice of yoga, and is therefore a key part of the whole study. It produces peace and happiness, which are after all the overarching goal, stemming from the satisfaction of an active mind.

         Most commentators translate bhavana as ‘concentration’, Mahesh Yogi has ‘steady thought’, and the religious one uses ‘belief’. Asimov has the right idea, emphasizing letting go after concentrating for awhile. He notes that we may be able to prepare the ground for insight by concentrating, while the Gita is more definite that it does prepare us to be available to receive the insights. Concentration by itself has too much of a sense of the individual straining hard to think, like Asimov’s voluntary thought, and is more about what you put in than what comes out of your efforts, while balance reflects the gentleness of opening up to a deep inner pool of wisdom. If we’re generously inclined, concentering the mind makes it available to intuition and insight, so long as it isn’t centered around false notions. Belief relies on somebody else to have the intuition and tell you about it, which is definitely not the Gita’s method.


67)         Still moving amid sense interests, that item to which the mind submits draws away the reasoning as the wind does a ship on the waters.


         Verse 67 presents the converse of verse 64. There the sense interests were not allowed to capture the attention, permitting progress toward spiritual clarity. Here they do catch the attention, leading to distraction away from clarity. The image of an invisible force pressing the mind before it, with no solid ground to help offer resistance, is quite apt, and developing enough confidence in our mental orientation to resist outside influences is a long term challenge.

         We experience this metaphorical wind whenever we try to concentrate or meditate, as distracting thoughts catch our attention. Yogis make sure to bring themselves back to the project at hand as soon as they realize they have been blown off course, but undisciplined people simply follow the fickle breezes wherever they may lead. They submit to them, whereas yogis do not.

         Mindfulness includes paying attention so that when you are drawn off on a tangent, you sooner or later notice it and bring yourself back to the center. As Mojo Sam of ZBS says, in the Jack Flanders adventure Somewhere Next Door to Reality, “It’s not difficult to be mindful—what’s difficult is to remember to be mindful.” Staying exactly in the center is almost impossible, but minimizing the psychological wobbles and regaining equanimity as soon as possible is simple enough, and brings gradual clearing of the fog.

         As is well known, external influences like listening to a persuasive speaker can take us very far out of ourself, especially if we are convinced the manipulative thoughts agree with our own. But the most persuasive speaker is the voice in our head. Even though it is a composite of ideas gathered from many disparate sources, it sounds absolutely like “us.” The practice the Gita is describing is designed to break the hold of this inner chatter on our psyche, so we can be more authentically ourself.

         The expression of creativity in our life depends on a level of concentration that can withstand the gales of many types of distraction, including criticism, hostility, misunderstanding, and even positive distractions like encouragement. We are quite vulnerable to compliments, and can easily be blown off course by them. The steadiness of a well-founded reason does not swerve in either positive or negative puffs of wind, which are the attractions and aversions Krishna speaks of.

         So many of our thoughts carry us away from where we need to be. Let me give a typical example. One of my fellow disciples was deeply in love with our guru, Nitya. Many, many times she would burst into tears and sob, “You are going to die and I’ll be left all alone. I don’t want you to die!” She was so upset it interfered with her relationship with him: because she was so busy feeling sad she didn’t actually listen to him half the time. Her self-generated anxiety prevented her from being present, even though that was what she believed she wanted. This went on with varying intensity for 25 years or so. Then Nitya really did die. She was perfectly calm and serene about it. Didn’t bother her in the slightest. She knew in her heart that there was no “away” for him to go to. The only problem was that he was no longer available to teach her. If she had changed her attitude at the outset she would have spared herself a lot of needless misery, while being a much better listener.

         This woman was an extreme example, but we all carry shades of similar dread of future possibilities with us all the time, and it spoils our engagement with life to a significant degree. Why not try to see things as they are right now, and work on opening up to the wonderful world around? Instead, we indulge our twisted attachments and block the light of life behind a mental iron curtain. The distracting winds can blow with hurricane force.

         Lawrence Gonzales has written a very enjoyable book, Everyday Survival, with dozens of anecdotes about people who were distracted by what they incorrectly believed they were seeing, and so failed to take necessary action to protect themselves, as well as many examples of the opposite: those who thought creatively, and so survived hazardous circumstances. Key to his thesis is that the brain gets programmed to run “scripts,” whole sequences of responses to a familiar stimulus. We receive the stimulus (sense interest) and then perform an entire preprogrammed song and dance (like being carried away by the wind). This is fine when appropriate, but sometimes the script kicks in at the wrong time, leading to disaster. By paying close attention, though, we can turn off our scripts before they divert us off course. Gonzales’ thesis is an update of the Gita’s wisdom based on modern neuroscience, though he is unaware of its roots.


68)         Therefore, Arjuna, he whose senses have been in every way withdrawn from sense interests—his reason is well founded.


         Summing up what has already been clearly established, Krishna makes sure that Arjuna gets the point. It never hurts to recapitulate the lesson, in case the student has gotten off the track because of the intensity and unfamiliarity of the material.


69)         What is night for all creatures, the one of self-control keeps awake therein; wherein all creatures are wakeful, that is night for the sage-recluse who sees.


         The simplest interpretation of this classic verse is that most people attend only to what they “see” through their five senses, while the contemplative delights in the invisible realms of ideas, ideals, and ultimately the Absolute itself. If you can’t see something it is dark to you. Conversely, the realm of sensory stimuli blankets the invisible firmament of thought, and so the sage-recluse has to screen it out to prevent it from blocking contact with everything beyond the reach of the senses.

         Transactions based on sense data are where ordinary beings put their attention, while the interstices within the matrix of manifestation remain invisible and therefore unappetizing. The wise seer takes delight in this invisible universe, and knows that being bogged down in externals will prevent attending to it. As Wordsworth said,


         The world is too much with us; late and soon

         Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:

         Little we see in Nature that is ours.


         The search for truth has always appeared inscrutable to most people. They can’t understand why anyone would spend time meditating, when they could be partying, watching TV, drinking beer, getting laid, making money, or what have you. But for someone searching for meaning in life, these are mostly a waste of time, diversions from the search. They may enjoy them too, in moderation, but they have a secondary importance to the quest for understanding.

         Contemplating the enormity or the incomprehensibility or what have you of the Absolute and how it suffuses the world is just about the most absorbing amusement there is. You can call it meditation if anyone asks, and then you won’t have to explain it, since everyone thinks they know what meditation is. But that which is dark resists explanation. If you start to get a handle on the Absolute, you can be sure the handle will very soon be inadequate. Believing they know exactly what God is is a comforting device for the terrified, the simple-minded, or the neophyte. Offer such people your smiling reassurance, then go back to wondering. They will not be joining you in the dark, no matter how brightly it shines.

         Accessing this mysterious depth through contemplation, prayer or some other route is another thing the Gita means by being awake in the night. Prayer sets up a bipolar relationship with the deity being prayed to. It doesn’t really matter if it’s between you and yourself in your own mind, because you’re invoking the wise part of yourself out of the dim part, or the transcendent Unknown from the limited known. It helps to gently minimize the ego also, by acknowledging you don’t have all the answers. For the most part, however, the preferred direction is inward, not out to some hypothetical deity. The Gita gives little credence to prayer and ordinary forms of worship, but does acknowledge that they are suited to certain types of people and have some value. Contemplation and intelligent reasoning, on the other hand, are accorded the highest respect.

         Structurally speaking, day and night are equivalent to horizontal and vertical in Nataraja Guru’s scheme of correlation, representing such polarities as space and time, activity and stillness, becoming and being, physics and metaphysics, and so on. (For more on this, see especially his Unitive Philosophy, p.158.) In yoga, these pairs are all to be taken together. You can’t have the vertical without the horizontal any more than you can have day without night.

         It’s an interesting sidelight that Arjuna, whose name is literally “ever wakeful,” means white or silver (“the color of the day”—-MW), and Krishna means dark or black. The ignorant one is bright and the knower shrouded in darkness. Day and night are thus symbolic of the inversion brought about by the guru-disciple relationship, and with this teaching Krishna is subtly pressuring Arjuna to change his outlook from the ordinary to the esoteric.

         Guru Nitya Chaitanya Yati elaborates on this, in his talk Therapy and Realization in the Bhagavad Gita:


   We have three representative people in the Bhagavad Gita, Dhritarashtra, Arjuna and Krishna. Dhritarashtra, in our case, can be thought of as a state of blindness; being morally blind, spiritually blind and intellectually blind. We become blind in so many ways. Arjuna can be another aspect in us, the seeking mind, the searching mind, and the mind that likes to be disciplined. It is the mind that likes to be related to the source of wisdom. And the third is Krishna, the one light which is present in all of us, the eternal light of the Supreme, or whatever name you may call it. This is qualified in the Gita Dhyanam as the light that teaches. That light is attributed to Narayana.

   The word Narayana is again very significant. Nara means man. Ayana means to dwell in. Narayana is that which is dwelling in every man, the shining principle which animates the individuation of every person. Narayana himself teaches Partha, another name for Arjuna. Partha is the ever-vigilant one.

   If Dhritarashtra is blind, then the nature of Arjuna is just the opposite: to be ever awake so that the light which illuminates him is never far from him, but within himself. Another description given to Arjuna is Nara. Here Nara indicates the representative man. Narayana and Nara: the indwelling spirit of man and the man. Narayana himself teaches Nara. The guru is not outside of you. There is no one without a guru. Everyone’s guru is within him or her. The questioning mind is the disciple and the conclusive answer that comes from within is the guru. Narayana is within everyone.


Every Arjuna has a choice to make between the blind world of separation from the Absolute ground, with its divisions and hostilities, or the inner light that leads to union with it. The first is in plain sight, the second, subtle and mysterious. Yet what looks bright is spiritually dark, and that which cannot be directly perceived is lit by the energy of ten thousand suns.


70)         Still getting filled, while fixed firm in immobility, the ocean remains; so, too, he in whom all interests enter—he attains to peace, not the craver of desires.


         The end of the second chapter soars high, concluding with a mysterious and poetic description of the realized state, in which all polarities such as day and night are equalized. This is the last occurrence of the exalted meter until Chapter VIII.

         Paradox is wholly realized and integrated in the one who attains to peace. Events may pour in through the senses like rivers to the sea, and pour out like vaporizing mists, but the contemplative remains steady in an oceanic state of mind which is neither added to or subtracted from in the least by what transpires.

         One who craves desires feels that events change who they are, and so their identity rises and falls with the waves of occurrences. There is no lasting peace to be had by clinging to that which passes away.

         “All interests enter,” reminds us that the seer is not closed off from events through a negative withdrawal, but participates fully in them. This world in which we live is the true heaven, unimaginably replete and varied. By relinquishing our craving for more elsewhere, we aren’t left with nothing, but become rich in that which is always with us, and which we ignore by lurching off on our ill-conceived crusades.


71)         That man who, giving up all attachments, moves about desirelessly, without owning anything and without egoism—he goes to peace.


         By now we should have understood the case for desireless action, but if not there is plenty more input in the next couple of chapters. At least we should bear in mind the hypothesis that such an attitude leads to peace, which is all that Krishna is telling us at the moment. In due time all our doubts will be resolved, but for now they have their value.

         The third line is the same as the third line of XII, 13, where the translation of “without owning anything and without egoism” is sublimated to “free from possessiveness and egoism.” The word for egoism literally means “no mine-ness.” The idea here is not that you don’t own things, but the selfish sense of “mine,” perfectly exemplified by the two-year-old with a favorite toy, has been discarded. We can easily see how the child has a limited perception bounded by pure want, but the same emotion in adults, clothed in “mature” finery, passes largely unnoticed. Selfishness shrinks the world to a pitiful vestige of its potential, whereas selflessness is endlessly expansive. There will be more detailed comments under IV, 21.

         Possessiveness or the “sense of mine” is explicitly mentioned at least four more times (III, 30; IV, 21; XII, 13; XVIII, 53). Unitive action, one of the main teachings of the Gita, depends on an openness to the entire situation in which one finds oneself. Whenever you have the idea “I am the doer,” or  “I am the actor,” or especially “I want this or that,” it erects barriers to that openness that are obstacles to peace.


72)         This is the state of being in the Absolute, Arjuna, on reaching which one suffers from delusion no more. Established in this at the very last moments of life, one reaches that final state of pure being in the Absolute.


         At the outset of any endeavor there is a high value in knowing its goal, at least in a general way. It provides direction, whereas a hit or miss approach might lead to going around in circles. We are aiming at identification with the Absolute, which sweeps away delusion. Here it is called pure being, nirvana.

         Krishna reminds us that delusion causes suffering. Arjuna’s suffering is definitely due to the faulty beliefs he is struggling to shake off. But many people work very hard to ratify their delusions rather than dispense with them. They imagine that if they shout louder than the next guy, or have better connections, or elbow out the competition, they will get their way, and that’s the whole point of life. Krishna’s view is that there is a magnificent meaning to life that is trying to find expression in each person’s heart, but a welter of false beliefs keeps it out of sight and out of mind. By relinquishing delusions, the ideal impulse of the Absolute is automatically promoted to the center stage of the relinquisher’s experience. Delusions create a closed system, while pure being is open and dynamic, and leads to final emancipation even at the portals of death.

         The wording of the verse reminds us that sighting the Absolute, the One Beyond, clears away our misconceptions. We can struggle with delusions all we want, and it is even healthy to do so, but they won’t be gone until we attain full realization. All too often we achieve a small amount of clarity and imagine we’ve been cured of the whole disease. Instead of persisting in working on ourselves, we then become evangelists for the partial awareness we have attained. We should pretty much count on the fact that this is a lifetime program, and that the most dangerous delusion is that we have successfully eluded our shortcomings. A little humility will help keep us away from this abyss.


         Although we have barely begun to make our way through the Bhagavad Gita, many of the essential features of its spirituality have already been introduced. There is enough in the first two chapters to have a dramatic impact on our lives if we choose to put it into practice. Krishna has begun to redirect Arjuna’s attention from external pressures to discover his own inimitable strength to make intelligent decisions. He has shown Arjuna how his conditioning warps his ability to enjoy life and act with expertise, and he has presented a nontheistic approach to such classic concepts as detachment, duty, and desire. Yoga has been clearly defined as a method to achieve clear thinking, free of anxiety, prejudice, and rancor. Such clarity is the best way to combat the ills of a world mired in hostility and selfishness. The self-evident fact that this is still a rare commodity in the modern world tips us off that the Gita’s teachings are not yet out of date.

         The path, which is no ordinary path but an oceanic state, now lies open before us. Over the next sixteen chapters the Guru will stay with us and guide us through the process of first dipping our toes in those waters, then totally immersing ourselves, and afterwards drying off in the sun of wisdom, preparatory to reinhabiting the unique and intuitively inspired course of our life.





         “It looks like we’re off to good start,” Krishna said. “Do you see the value of investigating these matters further? Shall we continue?”

         “This is a lot for me to absorb,” replied Arjuna. “Let me sit with it for a while. I want to spare you any trouble on account of my ignorance, so I’ll be sure to sort out what I can before I ask anything more of you.”

         Krishna smiled in appreciation, then went on. “Let me sketch out the next step, which will assist you in your preparations. We’re going to reassess knowledge and action, and see how they fit together. Ordinarily there is a gulf between them, but yoga is a way to bridge the gap. I call the bridge karma yoga, unitive action.

         “Our actions begin deep in the psyche, in what you might call our unconscious intelligence, whereas our knowledge is compiled mainly by our conscious mind, so it lies much closer to the surface. That’s why there isn’t always a good match between our thoughts and deeds, or you might say our desires and the demands of daily life. The chaotic battle you are caught up in is exactly the kind of thing that happens when knowledge and action are out of joint. When our knowledge and action are in accord, though, they function seamlessly. In fact, that’s how knowledge is converted to wisdom, by integrating it with our actions. You need to learn how to get them to work together, how to incorporate the impulses—both divine and demonic—from your unconscious into your awareness of the world around you. They are meant to be in harmony, but look what a disaster it is when they aren’t.”

         “I can certainly see the disaster part,” agreed Arjuna, “but why is action such a big deal? I thought I was getting out of it.

         Krishna shook his head, chagrined. “Action is pretty much the whole game,” he went on. “The universe is all about things happening. That’s the fun of it. Even thoughts are a kind of action. Our mental posturing either holds us captive in oppressive conditions or frees us from them. A lot of your thinking is still tying you down. So you might want to investigate it a little further.

         “I know we’ve touched on this already, but I don’t think you’ve understood it as much as you could, so let me reiterate. For most people, action means doing your duty. It’s like being in a work crew: you have your assigned job in an enterprise, be it building a skyscraper, playing team sports, running a business, raising a family or what have you, and you do it well or poorly, depending on how successfully your task is completed. For most, that’s the essence of spirituality, doing your duty well, what other people expect you to do well. And that’s fine as far as it goes, but those are actually the most mundane matters. Part of you, what I call the divine part, is desperate to express some of the more complex abilities you possess, and if you don’t bring them out they make you frustrated and depressed. You really are a miraculously complicated creation of mine, don’t you know? I always intended humans to do more than scrabble for food or run swords through each other.

         “What I want to teach you is how to access your full inner being, because your real duty is to develop your unique talents, to become what you truly are capable of as an independent entity, instead of always conforming to a template laid down by someone else. Your best features have been driven so far underground you don’t even remember them yourself. Reclaiming them is the real spiritual quest, and it’s the essence of what I’ll be helping you to discover. I assure you, once you are in tune with your true nature, you will fulfill your mundane duties easily, and with pleasure. You will also know how to dance, how to flow through life creatively. That’s the best contribution you can make to yourself and the world around you. Sound interesting?”

         Arjuna nodded thoughtfully. “When you put it that way, how can I refuse?”


[1] Music and lyrics by Kelly Gordon & Dean Kay. Recorded by Frank Sinatra, 1966.

Scott Teitsworth