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.
him who was thus filled with tenderness, whose eyes were filled with tears, and
agitated, and who was in distress, Krishna spoke these words:
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 midst of this difficulty, whence comes to you this dejection typical of
non-Aryans, heaven-barring and disreputable, O Arjuna?
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 battle? 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
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.
teasing has a methodological component as well. When a distraught seeker comes
to a teacher, the first thing to ascertain is if they are only seeking solace,
or whether they are 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.
is another important clue invariably overlooked in this verse. Krishna happens
to be black himself, which makes him a non-Aryan. The word Krishna literally
means black. 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
invaders conquered India, they drove those 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 democratic spirituality of the ancients.
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.
yourself not to impotence, O Arjuna, it does not befit you. Cast off this base
faint-heartedness. Arise, O Terror of Foes!
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
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.
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.
could I encounter with arrows in battle Bhishma and Drona, who are worthy of
worship, O Krishna?
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
I can shirk my duty and accomplish nothing, or I can do my duty and commit a
terrible crime. Neither option is acceptable.
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
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.
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
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)
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.
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
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.
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.”
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
spoken thus to Krishna, Arjuna, the Terror of the Foe, saying “I will not
fight,” lapsed finally into silence.
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.
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.
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.
silence means he has disconnected his graven image-making apparatus, opening himself
to whatever ineffable grace Krishna, representing the Absolute, will offer.
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.
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.
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.
this, Krishna, with a semblance of smiling, spoke these words to him who was in
grief between the two armies:
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
never was I nonexistent, nor you, nor these chiefs of men; neither shall we,
all of us, ever cease becoming hereafter.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.”
sense contacts, on the other hand, yielding cold-warmth, joy-pain, alternately
coming and going, are transitory. Do you endure them, O Arjuna.
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.
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.”
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.
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?”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
human indeed of firm mind who is unaffected by these, equal-minded in joy as
well as pain—-he is destined for immortality.
Can it be true that all that’s required to obtain immortality is to withdraw
from focus on the senses? That’s too easy!
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.
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.
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.
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.
is unreal cannot have being, and non-being cannot be real; the conclusion in
regard to both these has been known to philosophers.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
That to be indestructible by which all this is pervaded. None can bring about
the destruction of This that knows no decrease.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
flat on my face
I pick myself up
and get back in the
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
thus these two are the same question. The intent must be “who is the killer?”
and “who is killed?”
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
do not cut This, fire does not burn This, and water does not wet This; wind
does not dry 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
it is uncleavable; It is non-inflammable; It is unwettable and non-dryable
also—everlasting, all-pervading, stable, immobile; It is eternal.
same system is hereby presented from the opposite side, that of purusha instead
of prakriti, maintaining the symmetry.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
have an unmanifested origin and manifested middle states, and again
unmanifested terminations. Where is room for plaint herein?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.”
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
surprisingly, this stirringly beautiful verse is expressed in the exalted
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
can’t do better than quote Guru Nitya Chaitanya Yati on dharma, from Therapy and
Realization in the Bhagavad
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
beings will also pronounce a never-ending verdict of calumny on you, and to one
used to honor, dishonor is worse than death.
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.
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!
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!
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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,
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.
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
against you will speak of you in unspeakable terms, scorning your ability; what
pain could there be keener than this?
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.
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.”
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.
you will attain heaven or winning you will have the enjoyment
the earth. Therefore arise, O Arjuna, making up your mind to fight.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
both pleasure and pain, both gain and loss, both victory and defeat, enter
wholly into the battle. Thus you will avoid sin.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
following information is somewhat challenging, so anyone not wishing to mine
every last nugget from the work can skip to the last two paragraphs.
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 om 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
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.
O Arjuna, the well-founded reasoning is unitive, but many branched and endless
are the reasonings of them in whom reason is ill-founded.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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:
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
whether we work assiduously toward heaven or become passive in its shadow,
heaven is a highly subversive concept we should be very careful with.
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
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.
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.
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,
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
concern should be with action (as such) alone, not for any benefits ever. Do
not become benefit motivated; be not attached to inaction either.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
in activity, Arjuna, taking your stand on the unitive way,
attachments, and capable of regarding both attainment and nonattainment as the
same: in sameness consists the unitive way.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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!”
to reason one leaves behind here both meritorious and unmeritorious deeds.
Therefore affiliate yourself to the unitive way; yoga is reason in action.
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.
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.
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
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.”
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
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
affiliation to unitive reason the wise, transcending birth bondage, renouncing
benefit interest, go onward to a state beyond all pain.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.”
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.
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.
disillusioned respecting the (contradictory injunctions of the) scriptures,
your reason stands unshaken and steady in samadhi, then you shall have reached
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
get out there and have some fun, and in the process make somebody else happy
when, as a tortoise retracts its limbs from all sides, the senses are withdrawn
from objects of sense interest—-his reason is well founded.
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.
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.
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.”
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)
interests revert without the relish for them on starving the embodied of them.
Even the residual relish reverts on the One Beyond being sighted.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
with a man of wisdom, Arjuna, in spite of his effort, excited sense interests
can forcibly distract the mind.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
enraged is only the beginning.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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)
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.
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?
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.
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.
Assimov, 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….
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.
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.
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.
the negatives, the first part of the verse basically reads “balance permits
reason,” and “balance is necessary for creative intuition” (bhavana).
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.
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
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.
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.
commentators translate bhavana as ‘concentration’, Mahesh Yogi has ‘steady
thought’, and the religious one uses ‘belief’. Assimov 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.
moving amid sense interests, that item to which the mind submits draws away the
reasoning as the wind does a ship on the waters.
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.
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.