and action (jnana and karma) are generally conceived of as being separate, but
the Gita treats them as integral aspects of an all-inclusive unity that is not
to be divided. Thus in both this and the previous chapter we are not dealing
with two different subjects, but simply refining the concepts of intelligently
directed activity. As we proceed we should keep in mind that jnana is “the
light by which we grow into our true being, not the knowledge by which we
increase our information and our intellectual riches.” (Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, p. 182) What Sri
Aurobindo more dualistically classes as high and low we distinguish as wisdom
and knowledge, with each having its legitimate place in the scheme of things,
symbolized by the coordination of a vertical and a horizontal axis.
perennial unitive wisdom did I declare to Vivasvan, Vivasvan taught it to Manu,
and Manu taught it to Ikshvaku.
sounding like ancient gobbledygook, as soon as we decode the strange names this
verse is seen to agree with the broad outlines of modern evolutionary theory.
Vivasvan is the sun, which any chronology of our solar system naturally begins
with. Light and heat from the sun permitted life to arise and persist on Earth.
Manu is the progenitor of the human race, who has bequeathed us the species
name Man, and also to mano, meaning hand, the opposable thumb of which led
directly to humanness. The word moon
also derives from Manu, since the moon shines by a reflection of the solar
light just as consciousness shines by reflecting its environment. Manu thus
stands for the life principle, born from and sustained by the energy of the
sun. The mythological Manu marks the point where life becomes sentient,
wherever and whenever that might have been.
was the first monarch of the human species, symbolizing socialization. In days
of old, the wisest person was naturally the leader of the community. We know
that pre-civilized people have a much more highly developed inner sense or
knowledge of how to live, similar to the instinctive intelligence of the animal
and vegetable kingdoms. A king, queen or shaman would naturally be chosen on
the basis of their connection with the inner forces—the Absolute, ZPF (zero
point field or quantum vacuum), God, or whatever you like to call them. (As we
know, the Gita embodies them as Krishna.) In addition to guiding the community,
their most important job would be to train others to attune to the Absolute
themselves, and the best would eventually succeed them as the next leader.
evolutionary impulse has thus been traced in this verse from its cosmic origin
to the moment it achieves individual expression. It is perennial because it has
always happened and will always keep on happening, at least until the sun burns
out. Then it can happen around another sun somewhere else. The wisdom of the
Absolute cannot be eradicated, because it is not a fiction; it is a description
of exactly how the creative principle enters existence via consciousness. If it
is temporarily forgotten, it will eventually be found by a seeker of truth, who
then can share it with everyone once again. At the beginning of his
instruction, it is important for Arjuna to know he is being taught the
perennial philosophy, and not merely some parochial belief system limited in
time and space. Truth is not susceptible to institutionalization, it is
revealed by a direct link between a single mind and the essence of all.
of the ways human potential is undermined is that we are taught to be dependent
on preexisting structures, which takes away the incentive to seek personal
solutions to our problems. It isn‘t that what exists isn’t helpful, but by
itself it isn’t enough. As Arjuna has found at the beginning of his search,
static systems are more a hindrance than a help. Wisdom has to be rejuvenated
in each person, or it fades away and fizzles out. This idea is important enough
to merit three full verses at the very beginning of the chapter specifically
dedicated to wisdom.
unitive wisdom sounds a lot like it refers to the information field we nowadays
call the quantum vacuum. Nearly (or actually) infinite in power, universally
present, permeating every cubic centimeter of the cosmos, it appears to lend
intelligent patterning to evolutionary development, not to mention energizing
consciousness. If there is a god-like force in the universe, this is it. And
yet it remains unknown, being perceivable only mathematically or intuitively.
It is invisible and its extreme potency acts in all directions at once, so,
like fish swimming in the depths of the sea without being crushed by the
pressure, we are unaware of its impact.
handed down the line in succession, this (wisdom) the king-sages understood; by
great lapse of time here (however) this unitive wisdom came to be lost, O
along the line the connection with the Absolute Ground was broken, and it faded
out of public knowledge. It was probably a gradual process, but imagination
somehow began to replace intuitive knowledge of reality. Selfishness must have
sooner or later tainted the purity of the inner connection, and eventually
nepotism triumphed over direct wisdom transmission. A line of hereditary kings
and queens was established. Once that happened, the descent into barbarism
would have been fairly rapid. If your position is handed to you on a silver
platter, there is no reason for you to strive to know anything. A small group
of outsiders might continue the wisdom tradition, but they would suddenly be
considered enemies of the state instead of its lifeline to truth. When
ignorance attains to power, truth is its biggest threat. Societies in general
seek stasis and stability, and the Absolute expresses itself through eternal
flux. As such it stands in opposition to the kind of mind-numbing repetition
that civilization thrives on. Because of this, true seekers are marginalized
very same ancient secret is being today declared to you by Me, seeing that you
are both my devotee and friend.
Communism, Socialism, and numerous religious movements are some of the ways
that the human race has attempted to reestablish its ancient wisdom heritage in
social contexts. The aim is to break the grip of monarchies, oligarchies and
kakistocracies both political and religious. Unfortunately, entrenched
interests have been able to subvert pretty much every movement that has been
instituted in the name of freedom and unfettered intelligence. Brute force
trumps the gentle intimations of the intangible information field. Connection
with the Absolute, at least among humans, is now a rare and scattered
phenomenon, pushed to the extreme fringes of society, lest it unseat the
wielders of power. We can note that Arjuna has had to withdraw from the social
context (not surprisingly a battlefield) to take his seat at the feet of a wise
preceptor. But that’s okay: we don’t have to wait for connectedness to be
institutionalized before we seek it. The important thing is to begin striving
to make the connection, and all else follows.
that Krishna is willing to teach Arjuna because he is a friend in addition to a
devotee. Friendship implies trust and a relaxed intimacy that is much more
dynamic than simple worship. Friends dare to challenge and ask probing
questions, and they don’t fall back on abject devotion if they don’t understand
something. In essence, a friend thinks independently, while a worshipper defers
to the teacher to do their thinking for them. Deference is respectful in
moderation, but should not be overdone. As we will see, true friendship between
a guru and disciple is a rare and excellent achievement.
birth was posterior and the birth of Vivasvan was anterior; how then have I to
understand it that You declared it in the beginning?
modern language, Arjuna is saying “Hold it! You are, what, 34 years old? And
the sun is about four and a half billion years old. So how can you say you are
the sun’s guru?” This tips us off, in case there was any doubt, that Krishna is
not just the person he seems to be at the moment. He represents the Absolute,
pure and simple. Any form he takes on, including that of a god of the Hindu
pantheon, is a temporary, incidental condition.
wisdom relates to a sphere that pre-exists manifestation, which merely comes
and goes on its surface. The eternal precedes the changing, always. It is not
built up out of transient phenomena. The one is the core of the many. This is
why the Absolute cannot be attained by any series of steps. It must be grasped
whole, all at once.
beginning to dawn on Arjuna that Krishna is much more than he appears. All
beings are a continuum stretching from their manifested aspect back to their
unmanifested origins. The implication is that we should see the Absolute in
everyone, and if we do it is much easier to be sympathetic and engaged.
Embodying this idea, the traditional Indian greeting Namaskara is said to mean,
“I bow to the divinity within you.” In Vedanta we alter it to, “I bow to the
unity within you.”
are the lives that have gone past for me, as also for you, Arjuna; I am
conscious of them all; you are not conscious of them.
Krishna is thought of as an embodiment or
avatar of the quantum vacuum, then he could legitimately claim to have been in
existence for all of time, not only in this universe but the previous ones as
well, regressing ad infinitum. Exactly this type of claim resurfaces in Chapter
IX, where we will examine it in more detail.
paradox of the one and the many is a central contemplative issue in
spirituality. The one and the many are not two, and yet they can only be
addressed separately. For individuals to be conscious of their separate
existence they must be unconscious of the overwhelming totality of What Is.
Oneness overwhelms awareness of manifold entities. Actually, it works both
ways: our bedazzlement with the items of our world draw our attention away from
the intrinsic unity.
brain acts as a kind of reducing valve to screen out the excess of available
information so we can function on a simplistic level suited to our stage of
evolution. If we were aware of having lived millions of previous lives, for
example, the love we would feel for all our millions of mothers and fathers and
children would make it impossible to have a moment to relate to the ones we
have in this lifetime. We have to lose their memory so we can give our full
attention to the present.
Gita does not advocate disappearing in unity, only incorporating its awareness
into everyday life. This is a radical divergence from the many religious
systems that play on the desire to escape from the cares of this world.
Awareness is not intended to make our present life irrelevant, but to infuse it
with the greatest significance. The existence of each person is precious beyond
words, and coming to realize this is central to the Gita’s liberating
philosophy. It is the height of tragedy that so many of us have been taught to
think of life as an embarrassing stain on God’s perfection, and so go through
life feeling like an interloper. We are meant to feel welcome here.
is an additional secret to that of “perennial unitive wisdom” per se. Krishna
the Guru, emissary of the Absolute, is all-seeing; Dhritarashtra the
materialistic king is blind. In between these polar extremes is Arjuna, whose
name means the wakeful one. One inner story of the Gita is the transformation
of the wakeful state from its limiting fixation on the transactional realm
symbolized by Dhritarashtra to its full freedom in unfettered awareness
symbolized by Krishna. At the same time, it remains centered in living every
moment robustly. Opening our eyes makes us more alive, not less.
quantum biology has introduced the all-seeing aspect into the theory of
evolution, which for decades insisted on utter blindness as the mechanism of
change. A number of clever experiments in recent years have demonstrated rapid
and non-random evolution. Not only is blind, random evolution statistically
almost impossible, there is an expanding body of evidence that an intelligent
(or informed) process is taking place. Haphazard natural selection can’t
logically have any effect on something not yet developed, and therefore cannot
in itself be the agent of change. For instance, birds don’t have a survival
advantage in being able to fly until the entire complex of relevant mechanisms
is adequately developed, yet all those mechanisms developed steadily and
progressively over time, according to the fossil record. Once flight is achieved,
then it finally provides an actual advantage, and fliers might well out-survive
non-fliers. Regardless, creatures invariably reproduce before they are killed
and eaten, and not afterwards, so that part of the selection process comes after the transmission
of genes anyway.
the twenty-first century there is now solid evidence that the genetic code is
influenced by environmental factors, and doesn’t require random mutations for
modification. How long will it be before intentionality is recognized as an
important feature of the environment? Something is substantially accelerating
evolution beyond randomness, without a doubt. Attuning with the Absolute means,
among other things, linking ourselves to a vastly intelligent evolutionary
I remain ever unborn as the never-diminishing Self, while I am the Lord of
Creation too, grounded in my own nature I assume being through the negative
principle of my own Self.
acknowledges an intelligent role in the proliferation of beings. Despite
mounting evidence of informed evolution, resistance to the idea of intelligence
in nature is deeply entrenched. Nataraja Guru attributes this to a hangover
from the Inquisition, when science learned to fear and loathe religion.
Actually, science and religion are two contrasting attitudes toward the same
subject, and their differences may be readily harmonized by the kind of
dialectic reasoning demonstrated in these pages. As in the Kurukshetra War of
the Gita, there has to first be an interruption of hostilities so that the
subject can be viewed dispassionately from a neutral standpoint. Then it will
be seen that the same desires and interests motivate both sides, such as the
search for truth and its communication to the community, with sincere adherence
to certain beliefs as the guiding principle. Nitya Chaitanya Yati notes the
similarities between adherents of science and religion in his Psychology
Both sides want truth
to prevail; both want the mind to be systematically directed towards truth, so
that whatever an individual does will be consistent with a truthful conviction;
both hold that only truth will set man free from incorrect beliefs and wrongful
conditioning; and both want their votaries to be happy. In addition, both
spiritualists and materialists believe they should share happiness with others
and work towards the perpetuation of peace, justice, love, and happiness for
all through the achievement of the goals of their philosophies. (106)
may well be that the frontiers of science are
pressing into the former exclusive domain of religion, and both will soon agree
that intelligence (or perhaps consciousness) is the essence of the universe. If
it is given different names by different groups, so what?
calls creation itself the negative principle of the Absolute. Cool as existence
is, being at its core the Absolute, it is inevitably dualistic, and observation
shows a tendency for it to run downhill when there is an apparent separation
from the Unmanifest. This so-called entropy can be countered by a positive
infusion of negentropic energy at discrete intervals to reset the balance. The
accelerating rate at which galaxies recede from each other is one observable
form of this added energy. And the fact that electrons don’t “run down” indicates
that they exhibit perfect balance between entropy and negentropy. Biological
life itself is a negentropic principle, exhibiting continual renewal. When we
become old and tired we are replaced with someone fresh and new.
habitually think of creation as a positive evolutionary flow, but from the
standpoint of the Absolute it is more of a negation. Created beings have to be
limited; converting the unlimited to limited dimensions involves a process of
negation. Either way it’s a stupendous miracle.
there comes to be laxity in regard to right life, O Arjuna, and wrong coming to
assert itself, then I bring about the creation of myself.
idea is interesting on many levels. Basically we have the natural bliss of the
Absolute breaking through the accretions of moribund beliefs and mental iron
curtains that humans seem condemned to erect when they lose contact with their
own nature as the Absolute.
is one of those verses where the tendency is to think it is referring to other
people. After all, we’re never wrong,
never lax. Someone else is to blame! But applying this to our own condition is
precisely what is called for. We regularly lose the thread of our inner life,
and regaining it is bringing the Absolute back into our heart. Arjuna himself
is undergoing such an experience. Being a warrior, he thought he was upholding
right against wrong and acting honorably, but he wound up in an untenable
position, so something was clearly out of whack. Usually we only realize we
have gone off track when we crash into a dead end. If we blame others, we will
never learn any lesson from it. Worse, we’ll adopt the attitude of a victim,
which is incredibly binding, like a voluntary straitjacket. We have to always
keep in mind, with the accidental cosmic tourist Jack Flanders, that “what’s
coming at you is really coming from
are thrilled by the prospect of God coming to Earth to straighten things out
and punish their enemies, which seems to be implied here. We have to be very
careful not to make that mistake. The emphasis is on renewal and regeneration
rather than persecution.
Gita never uses the familiar term avatar, which implies a descent of some sort
of deity from above into creation below. Instead it uses srijami, with the intimation of a seed sprouting at its appropriate
season. A seed may lie dormant for a long time, but its potential is always
present. This accords much better with the universality of divinity that the
Gita espouses than any supernatural descent. The Absolute arises from within
rather than without. It pulses, like a seed growing into a tree, then back into
a seed, to become another tree, endlessly. It breaks through the stagnation of
fixed notions—“laxity in regard to right life”—like a blade of grass pushing up
through a cement sidewalk or a tree root cracking a boulder.
of the Divine becoming incarnate are found in many religions. In the Gita’s
view, everything without exception is an incarnation of the Absolute. It is not
a rare event but the whole ball of wax. Any difference between the divine and
the ordinary, the unmanifest and the manifest, can only lie in our level of
awareness, as Krishna noted back in verse 5.
to the idea of avatars or divine saviors, there may or may not be some strange
sacrifice performed at intervals by the Absolute to save us from our collective
tendency toward evil and stupidity, such as crucifying a beautiful soul in
plain sight of everyone. Who knows? The Gita isn't talking about anything like
that. If we believe it, such an act should make us infinitely grateful and our
hearts should soar with love. We should be so thankful that we spontaneously
forgive our enemies, realizing they are in the same predicament as us. Such an
act should galvanize us into working for liberty and justice for all. If that
doesn’t happen, then we’ve missed the point. If God’s love inspires us to hate
rather than accept, we clearly aren’t getting the message.
aside, when the Absolute reenters your heart and fills you once again with
wisdom and compassion, it is the resurrection of the divine, a second coming if
the social sphere, clearly it’s healthy to support geniuses or at least some of
the exceptional people among us in diving into the unknown to explore new dimensions.
Not everyone can abandon the crops or the wheels of industry to dedicate that
much extra time and energy, so it’s beneficial to support a handful of
scientists and spiritual seekers and give them the freedom to make the search
for us. The problem often comes after they die (or are killed off by those
unwilling to accept the results of their investigations). There is no guarantee
their successors will be as enlightened as they. Indeed, competition for paid
posts tends to be fierce and ugly, resulting in poor selections. Over time
positions become institutionalized and lose their value to anyone other than
the post holders themselves, becoming a drain on the collective wealth.
Periodically then it is necessary to cast off this dead skin and start fresh,
lest the world descend permanently into a negative stasis, called tamas in the
tend toward the accumulation of laws. Laws kill the spirit; they cannot
transmit it. When the spirit is totally crushed by laws, it inevitably bursts
forth once more. Human history may be viewed as the perennial upwelling of the
spirit, followed by its gradual submergence in forms and habits. The spirit is
life, and its legally fixed form is death.
Luke 19, Jesus’ disciples are rejoicing in the bliss of the spirit, and the
Pharisees, the socially upright ones, ask him to shut them up. He replies that
if he did, “the stones would immediately cry out.” In other words, the spirit
cannot be crushed for long, it must find an outlet. Then he warns his disciples
that those social forces will “cast a trench about thee, and compass thee
round, and keep thee in on every side.” (19. 43) Immediately afterwards he
starts lashing out at the buyers and sellers who have defiled the temple by
introducing mundane transactions into a spiritual setting. This is a rajasic
version of the present Gita verse.
re-creation of Krishna, or the Absolute in manifest form, symbolizes the fresh
infusion of energy to sweep away the dead and revitalize the living dynamism of
life. In social institutions, this is what managers perennially seek to
accomplish, usually with little effect, because it would require permitting
individual initiative. Managers always think they can direct it, but the
mysterious rebirth of energy into life is an inner process that is not amenable
to outside pressure.
and anon, the spirit sweeps away the encrustation of the dead letter of the law
in its flood of living bliss. For those not willing to wait a thousand years
for the external event of an avatar, it is available within your heart, any
time, any place. Right now, even.
protect those who are good and to destroy evildoers, for establishing
righteousness, I assume being, age by age.
again, this verse resonates with the barbaric tendencies of human beings,
because we really get off on destroying evildoers. We’re ready to go out and
bash them at a moment’s notice. Unfortunately, unleashing war on evildoers just
produces more evil. By contrast, the reestablishment of the goodness of the
Absolute does not pit one side against the other. It is a unifying kindness
that is a tide that raises all boats. As the Buddha is famously said to have
said, “Hatred does not cease by hatred, but only by love; this is the eternal
rule.” Love is but one aspect of the righteousness Krishna perennially restores
to the world.
destroys evildoers not by killing or imprisoning them, but by redirecting them
to a more generous frame of mind. And Krishna isn’t just speaking of a gooey,
incoherent type of love, but righteousness, which is an incisive, intelligent
reconfiguring that takes everything into consideration. The Gita itself is the
perfect example of the complexity of Krishna’s method of reestablishing
righteousness, because that’s exactly what it is.
is believed by some in the psychedelic community that the present incarnation
of this type of healing energy was presented to the human race in the form of
LSD. For a species that believed in pills, God put itself into tiny drops on a
sheet of blotting paper. Why not? There is no doubt that the contemporary
influence of what was called soma in the Gita’s time has been to turn many away
from the nefarious realms of cutthroat competition and stimulate the positive
virtues like mindfulness and compassion. At least it should not be surprising
that a divine influence doesn’t have to take the form of a person, but rather
appears as an all-pervasive “tide in the affairs of man.”
Gita’s grand solution to the paradox of fighting the impossible battle of
Kurukshetra, exemplified in struggles such as humans versus conscienceless
corporations, is to withdraw from the “context of suffering” and reestablish
contact with the Absolute, the one Source of all existence. The many are only
harmonized by reconnection with the oneness at their core, not by rearranging
their relative positions.
actions require greedy actors. If somehow seers can reconnect with their inner
nature there will be no one to row that boat any more. We mistakenly think that
because we feel the impulse we must fight to stop others from their destructive
behavior, but our fight just energizes the cause of destructiveness more. The
reentry of Krishna into the world means that the reverence for life that is a
primary attribute of the Absolute returns to displace lust, anger and greed,
the triple “demonic” qualities, which are immaculately embodied in the souls of
limited liability corporations.
this we must cure ourselves first, like the Biblical “physician,” before
tending to other people’s shortcomings. The natural mistake is to set out to
cure others, since it is so easy to see their faults. But then we are promoting
our own egoism instead of ushering in divine harmony, and that marks the
difference between success and failure. For instance, those motivated by anger
who attack corporations head on are likely to be met at the door by a mild
mannered human being rather than a mythical monster.
religious interpretation here, that we don’t have to raise a finger because
Krishna will take care of it for us, is nonsensical. The Absolute acts through
its manifest aspect, and we are That. We must stand up at all times, but do it
as wise neutrals and not as angry and fearful individuals separated from our
own heart. The mystical conchs blown in the first chapter still echo and reecho
down through the ages as a call for us to wake up and join the fray as
who understands this divine nature of my birth and work as consistent with
basic principles, on leaving this body does not attain to repeated birth, but
(only) comes to Me.
5 and 9 seemingly contradict each other, with the earlier verse asserting that
all beings, including Krishna as representative of the Absolute, undergo
repeated births and this one allowing for transcendence of the same.
Paradoxical teachings like this invite us to dig deeper into what the
implications may be.
sense I have is that bodily reincarnation is used by Krishna as a kind of
veiled metaphor for psychological matters. Many people get overly excited about
the idea of being materially reincarnated, and look no further. They go rushing
out the door, so to speak, leaving the serious students alone in the class.
Their excitement is a matter of ego inflation, in which the I-sense imagines it
will survive the transition marked by death along with the essence of the soul,
the atoms, or what have you. Egos don’t realize it doesn’t make any difference
what they believe: what’s going to happen will happen. We’ll find out in due
time what death has in store for us, so we should just keep an open mind. The
Gita’s advice to not have expectations is particularly germane in this subject.
We just do not know what will happen when death claims us, so all our
pronouncements are ridiculous.
of manifestation seems to communicate and reverberate as waves of various
frequencies. It may well be that life and death are one grand cycle of the wave
each of us is propagating, or that is propagating each of us. What could ever
stop it as it pulsates across the universe? A close reading of verses 5-9
pictures both created beings eternally vibrating, and an Absolute that cycles
in and out of existence in a similar wave pattern, possibly at “right angles”
to ours. As we attune with the Absolute through a verticalizing process, our
waves become more and more in phase, until they ultimately coincide or merge.
is not specifically mentioned here, either, although most every commentator
assumes it. Leaving the body could refer to absorption in the Absolute during
meditation, for instance. Then the meaning is that when we attune with the
Absolute our creativity is unlocked, and the Absolute becomes a source of
unending inspiration. It is a very appealing reading.
it boils down to is that our lives become repetitive when lived in memory, but
come alive with ever-new fields of interest when the Absolute is attained. When
we live in memories, or else are mesmerized by appearances, we cannot help
forgetting our true nature as the Absolute. “Repeated births” are recycled ideas
and frames of reference of the habitual mind. When consciousness is infused
with the Absolute, it enjoys an eternal fountain of fresh insights.
mentioned in verse 5 that we are unconscious of our past history, which would
require a different type of memory than what we normally have access to. The
secret teaching here is about waking up, about leaving our well-worn ruts and
exemplifying the zest of enlightenment. We can’t make this happen merely by
ordinary thinking, which runs in those pre-established ruts. We have to “enter
into” the Absolute in some mysterious manner. The entire song of the Gita is an
instruction on exactly how to accomplish this. We have arrived, after extensive
preliminary work, at the point where Krishna first mentions our merger with
him, which we know means with the Absolute. There will be a lot more
instruction about this as we go along.
of attachment, fear and anger, wholly filled by Me alone, and surrendering to
Me, many who have been purified by the discipline of wisdom have entered into
My (very) being.
here is the first instruction already! The parameters of the wisdom context are
sketched out for the disciple, along with an assurance that this has worked
plenty of times in the past. Arjuna likely appreciates being reassured, since
this is new territory and he may quite naturally harbor some doubts. This also tells
us that this discipline is not in any way exclusive. Anyone who can overcome
the three hurdles listed and who has refined themselves through wisdom study
can enter into the Absolute. The Gita’s wisdom is open and accessible to all.
(or desire), fear and anger are the triple impediments to contemplation that
will crop up throughout the work. We first met them in II, 56, you may recall,
where their interrelationship was explained. They were dealt with at the end of
the last chapter, and will come back in V, 28, among other places. Think of
them as the three horsemen of the Hindu apocalypse. They must be rooted out by
intense focus on their shadowy presence within the psyche, combined with the
acknowledgement that they definitely occur in us, and not solely
in others, where they seem much more pernicious.
part about surrendering to and being filled by the Absolute may sound creepy,
like inviting possession by some alien lizard. What’s meant here is much more
mystical. We have a seeker purified by the discipline of wisdom, the wisdom
sacrifice that will be extolled later in the Chapter as the most sublime form
of worship. By a mysterious form of surrender, the one purified by wisdom
enters the Absolute even as the Absolute enters them. It is not a one-way
possession: each merges into the other like two different fluids undergoing
osmosis. In truth, it more resembles two identical
substances diffusing into each other, like the proverbial raindrop dissolving
in the ocean. We only think of ourselves as different from our source, but we
we may think of it, we are not meant to cling to any fixed concept of what the
interpenetration is like. We can only know it by letting go of our well-defined
is often taken to be a debasing of the seeker in favor of the sought. If you’ve
gotten this far in the Gita you will know that balance and equality are the
keys. It’s more of an opening up, a letting go of limitations. Both sides of
the equation are essential to even have an equation. The Absolute is nothing
without created beings, and created beings are nothing without the supreme
reference of the Absolute, which comprises their very substance. Similarly, a
guru must have a disciple to even be a guru, just as a seeker needs a guru in
order to become a disciple.
on surrender will be found at II, 7 and 8; VI, 6; VIII, 7; IX, 1; and XI, 4.
each chooses to approach Me, even accordingly do I have regard for him. My very
path it is, O Arjuna, that all men do tread from every (possible) approach.
Absolute and its universe are wholly reciprocal. What you sow, you reap. What
you put in comes back out. There are a million ways to relate to life, and they
all have the same golden rule at their core. Here Krishna agrees with Narayana
Guru, who reminds us “The many faiths have but one essence. All beings are
making efforts in every way, all the time, for the happiness of the Self; in
the world, this is the one faith.” (Atmopadesa Satakam, verses 44, 49). The
Guru reminds us that we should look for the commonality in all the divergent
approaches to life, and not get bent out of shape by superficial differences.
only religious faith, but all forms of faith are embraced in this verse. No matter
what you call the Absolute—including nonexistent, absurd, imaginary, and so on—it
is the same concept under reference. If we fight it is over semantics, not truth,
because truth cannot contradict itself.
verse also applies to the three main stages of thought: commonsense, rational
and dialectic. A commonsense person sees the world in terms of objects and
their interaction; a rational person tends to analyze the world via some form
of linear logic; and the dialectician synthesizes the same world in terms of
values, seeing especially the coin between the two faces, the heads and tails.
All stages of thought are valid in their respective arenas. It might be noticed
that they correspond to the Vedantic trinity of sat, chit and ananda.
Common sense addresses the existential facts of life, the sat; rationality is the expression of consciousness or chit seeking to incorporate
understanding of the world around it; and yoga or dialectics reveals the
meaning of values in life, their ananda.
While all three modes of thought are integral parts of a healthy psyche, they
often are viewed as being at odds, with people tending to become partisans of
one type or another. Whether more limited or less limited, the world as perceived
maintains parity with the brightness of the visionary.
universality of the Gita’s teaching is underlined here, as it will be
frequently throughout the work. At the end of this chapter even the worst of
men will be included in those who can come to wisdom if they so choose. It goes
without saying that an open attitude like this deflects conflict, whereas
exclusive attitudes encourage it. Too bad a similar verse isn’t prominently
featured in every scripture.
the benefits coming from actions and thus sacrificing to the gods, quick indeed
are the results born of works in this world of men.
verse is linked with the previous one, emphasizing that the reciprocal nature
of the universe applies to the gods. Gods are the personification of the laws
of nature. For instance, there is no Thor hurling thunderbolts out of the sky,
he merely represents the powerful force that unleashes that energy. If you want
to exemplify music, you sculpt Sarasvati as its goddess. Literal-minded folk
sometimes mistake the poetic image for reality, but isn’t that kind of sweet?
It’s like a gorgeously embroidered garment compared to the plain cloth of
create their gods by first imagining them and then supplicating them. In fact,
the gods are what we long for, what
impels our actions, we just don’t call them gods anymore. The supplication may
seem absurd to nonbelievers, yet the votaries do get something meaningful from
the effort. A god that falls short of the Absolute still offers blessings
commensurate with its degree of universality. For instance, jealous gods offer
jealous benefits, angry gods angry benefits. Loving gods loving benefits. Rain
gods confer rain, and when they don’t they must be unhappy about some oversight
on our part. Many people pray to the gods of wealth or power; a business office
or parliament building is their temple. Sports gods are worshipped in the gym
or on the track. Whether the results obtained there are attributable to the
gods themselves, or merely to the efforts expended in pursuing the desirable
condition, is pure speculation. To Krishna it is simply a matter of
reciprocity: what you want you can and will get if you work for it. It just
won’t be quite what you expect.
people often worship the god of science. They want to understand how things
work, and they put time and energy into making experiments. Before long they
begin to get new information, and learn new applications for it. Some of it benefits
the world and some causes disasters, in roughly equal proportions. These
scientific seekers have similar attitudes to other god worshippers. They
possess an inner certainty that there are invisible things to apprehend, and
that they can find out what they are. They believe their knowledge will save
the world, or at least be very helpful. They have faith that their efforts will
in isolation, the verse sounds like a recommendation to get quick results by
sacrificing to these “gods” or natural principles. Not at all: it’s just how
things work in the world of action, and especially how they work in the Vedic
religion that is hereby being revalued and surpassed. This is a case of damning
by faint praise. The clue we’ve already gotten about this is that the Gita
thoroughly discountenances desiring any benefits of action. Recall II, 47 and
49, where Krishna in no uncertain terms tells Arjuna to act with expertise but
not to seek the benefits of his action, concluding “pitiful indeed are they who
are benefit motivated.” Later this attitude will be further criticized. Krishna
teaches going beyond all reciprocal behaviors to attain perfect freedom in the
Absolute. The Gita is spiritual instruction, not a how-to manual for
very simply, we should be careful what we wish and strive for, because only
union with the Absolute is completely fulfilling. Everything else, when you get
it you want more, or if it has been played out you have to look around for a
new indulgence. But once you connect with the Absolute you are completely
satisfied. You still do what you do, but you do it as a divine sport, as a
happy person, not in a desperate attempt to find fulfillment.
is actually a crucial teaching. Many very intelligent people worship the gods
of material attainment. So many scheme how to get rich, and to hell with anyone
who stands in the way. Many dedicate their lives to power trips, secretly
lusting to destroy whole countries. A lot of people dream of becoming rock stars,
strumming away endlessly in their back rooms and hoping a high powered agent
will notice them and catapult them to fame and fortune. All over the globe
youngsters are practicing sports, disciplining their bodies almost as
strenuously as the hair-shirt wearing religious practitioners of medieval
times. Some of them even get what they pray for, only to realize they are
trapped by the stringent demands of their worlds of business, politics or
entertainment. Or that that one moment of gold medal glory was the fleeting
high point in a life of drudgery under the guise of dedication.
does not mean that we have to totally discard our attraction to the gods,
either. Krishna’s advice is to be motivated by absolute values and not by the
lesser gods alone, to not become fixated on our preferred aspect of the whole,
which can lead to tunnel vision. Do your thing, but see how it fits in with the
big picture. In a world fractured by specialization, this is excellent advice.
further implication here is to find your dharma or native talent and live it
with as much expertise as possible. Only in that way will you avoid discovering
in middle age that you wasted your life on illusory pursuits. Do your sport for
the daily joy of it, because only one in a thousand comes in first. Run your
business as a socially and personally beneficial enterprise so it’s fun even
before you make a million. Play your guitar for the pleasure of making music
and developing your innate talents. Or become a politician to solve large-scale
problems rather than for fame and temporal power.
is made of “the law of karma” which is a version of the reciprocal Golden Rule
introduced in the previous verse and expanded here. It is a grand cliché that
you reap what you sow. All religions have a variant, as does science itself:
for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. The problem is that
there are many actions occurring simultaneously, so the counterbalancing
actions become disguised by complexity. It’s like trying to track a single
isolated wave in an agitated pond. There is undeniably an effect, but it is
nearly impossible to trace its course through the multitude of chaotic
interactions, though we can readily perceive the overall result. Reaping what
we sow is a general spiritual truth that does not play out in the actual world
in a clear-cut transactional fashion. Still, mathematically—that is,
contemplatively—it is possible to take each element separately and examine it.
first parse “as you sow, so shall you reap,” from the standpoint of the
metaphor itself, an agricultural image of planting and harvesting.
Simplistically viewed, you put some seeds in the ground and feed and water
them, so you should be able to reap the exact plant you planted, magnified a
thousandfold. But in real life birds eat some of the seeds, disease kills some
more, and sometimes a drought kills off the whole patch. All kinds of things
can go wrong. Environmental factors and mutations play their part. Some years
growing a crop is easy and sometimes it is impossible, often due to factors
beyond anyone’s control, and that’s when the metaphor appears to be misleading.
The Gita counsels being flexible about results precisely because they are the
actual and unpredictable aspect of the entire continuum. But at the outset—the
more hypothetical or spiritual end—there is greater correspondence between
sowing and reaping. If we plant peas we can expect peas to come up and not
version of the Golden Rule is to do unto others as you would have them do unto
you. For it to work properly, the self-interest of everyone has to be taken
into account, yet people usually invoke it in their own self-interest. They
believe if they are good then only good things should happen to them, but the
reality is far more complicated. There is no mechanical reciprocity involved.
This is a spiritual instruction, and if some day everyone abided by it we would
have paradise on Earth. But few do. They hold others to its demands, while
excusing themselves without even realizing it. Even in a spiritual community
there can be a lot of competitiveness and backstabbing to curry favor with God
or the guru, not to mention envy and jealousy, and it would be foolhardy to not
take those possibilities into account. Many people resent paragons of virtue,
and don’t mind committing a bit of sabotage to bring them down a peg.
people I know have been frustrated by their simplistic interpretation of the
Golden Rule. They have been very nice to their family, really bent over
backwards to be kind, and then certain family members took advantage of them.
It seemed like a violation of the Rule, and they felt disappointed and even unfairly
treated by fate. They failed to consider that their blanket niceness ignored
faults and problems that then allowed those greedy people to take more than
their fair share. Being nice should not mean being gullible, and being tolerant
does not mean opening yourself to abuse. Reaping what you sow means that if you
don’t consider all the factors intelligently you may well get burned.
you are one of the factors to consider. Like worshipping gods, being nice does
not mean simply denying yourself and exalting the other. It sometimes means not
allowing yourself or someone else to be pushed around. Acting in an exemplary
fashion most definitely includes knowing yourself as thoroughly as possible.
Pandavas of the Mahabharata experienced this exact syndrome at the hands of the
Kauravas, and this led to the war at the heart of the epic. Being the nice
guys, the Pandavas let the greedy Kauravas have their way, over and over, and
they eventually gobbled up everything. Only when they had literally no place
left to call their own did the Pandavas realize they had to stand their ground
or be swept off the face of the Earth. So unitive action is not the same as
being nice. It entails taking everything into consideration, and avoiding being
naïve or gullible. Not taking the trouble to stand up for your rights is likely
to come back to haunt you.
friend who had been swindled by her step-grandmother once told me she no longer
believed in karma, meaning in the compensating sense of the law of karma. She
was an upstanding human being who had never taken advantage of anyone. It
seemed unfair to her that someone could then take advantage of her; more than
unfair, it was proof that the law of karma was inoperative. I told her that was
not the case. The swindler had gained the exact amount my friend and her family
had lost, which is the bare bones of karma. Moreover she had worked hard and
schemed to appropriate the wealth, while her victims ignored her machinations.
I know for a fact that there was advanced warning of the problem and my
friend’s family did nothing to prevent it, due to bad advice and baseless
hopes, which apparently included a jejune conception of karma.
of us will ever know if there was further compensating activity on the part of
the universe as a whole, either before or after the actual swindle: that’s a
subject as vague and speculative as what happens in the afterlife. But within
the everyday realm there is a unity that envelops everything, while how it
plays out in the world of give and take is almost infinitely complicated.
Krishna just wants us to not be superstitious about it. There are reasons for
everything, just not always the reasons we prefer. The event was more a proof
of the teaching found in III, 9: “Do engage yourself in action that is
necessary; activity is indeed better than non-activity, and even the bodily
life of yours would not progress satisfactorily through non-action.”
say you are taking care of an elderly person, and you spend years of your life
dedicated to helping them and providing companionship. It would be difficult
not to hope that later on someone would do the same for you. That might happen,
but not as a result of “karma.” Reciprocal activity means that what you give to
the other person, the other person receives. Therefore it would be foolish to
do the service as a form of spiritual bank account. Do it because you love to
do it, because you can empathize with a fellow human being, because you care,
because you aren’t selfish. All those things enlarge your soul as they aid the
friend. And if later someone takes care of you in your dotage, don’t cheapen it
by considering it your just desserts. Be as grateful as if it is a gift freely
given, which hopefully it is. It’s much more beautiful that way.
vertical relationship with the Absolute is different from our horizontal one
with our friends and family, because it is guaranteed to be neutral, or
modestly benign if anything. Here what we see is what we get. If you believe
the Absolute to be loving, you will be filled with love. If you believe it to
be vengeful, you will be filled with desire for vengeance. If you believe it is
a demanding taskmaster, you will keep yourself busy. And so on. Most
importantly for the spiritual aspirant, if you reach out to it, it will reach
out to you. There will be a lot more instruction on this aspect of reciprocity
as we continue through the Gita.
fourfold color grades were created by myself on the basis of innate disposition
and vocation that accorded with each; know Me to be the maker of such as also
to be its undoer, unexpended.
we encounter for the first time the famous caste system of India. Unlike the
modern degenerate version, officially abolished though stubbornly persisting,
this was never intended to inculcate a hereditary system of bondage, but simply
to recognize certain general characteristics in the way humans relate to work.
As such it is closely connected to the two verses immediately preceding and the
two immediately following.
people are loosely grouped along a continuum of freedom versus necessity. It
can also be thought of as the degree that the vertical, spiritual dimension
participates within the practical, horizontal world of answering the numerous
demands of necessity. Those who are willing to barter most of their freedom for
the basic needs of life are the sudras, largely menial workers and servants.
The merchant class, the vaishyas, comes next on the continuum. They work long
and hard, but are able to get a little ahead of the game and purchase some
freedom with the money they earn. The warrior caste, the kshatriyas, is made up
of those able to live with a fair degree of freedom in the service of justice.
They are supported by the other castes to act in their interest. At the top of
the heap are those who are almost entirely freed from facing necessity, the
brahmins, hired by the rest, as it were, to intercede with the gods and explore
spiritual nonattachment. A fifth category exists, the sannyasins or
renunciates, who reject any burden of necessity to live in the freedom of the
Absolute. They are so uncategorizable as to fall outside the fourfold system
developed modern state has essentially the same pattern. Wage slaves and menial
laborers still make up the lowest caste or class. Added to it are the soldiers,
who have absolutely no independence of action or even thought in the modern
military. The kshatriyas of old were more like knights errant, with a large
measure of freedom of movement and action. In an attempt to glorify the sordid
life of the modern military, it is often compared to the honorable code of
ancient warriors, but this is nothing more than a con job to provide cannon
fodder for those who profit from the organized theft that is war. No one other
than a criminal in prison is more bound than a modern soldier, and their
soaring rate of serious mental disturbances bears witness to the fact.
merchant class still is made up of small farmers and businesspeople, although
the tendency to consolidation is producing a few brahmins and a large number of
sudras in the mercantile world nowadays. Teachers and bureaucrats of various
stripes make up the bulk of vaishyas. The kshatriya caste of the modern state
is comprised of those who are hired by the rest to look out for their interests
and provide them with entertainment. Movie stars and sports heroes, along with
politicians, judges and doctors, are in this class. Police and fire brigades
bear a passing resemblance to the ancient kshatriyas as well, though they are
primarily vaishyas. Finally there is the brahmin caste with its priests and
tenured professors, but primarily consisting of the super rich. In materialist
societies, wealth determines caste, since it is the primary determinant of
ancients supposed these types were god-given, in other words, fixed at birth,
but we can now add additional factors to a person’s genetic makeup that make
them adhere to mediocre patterns of behavior, such as enduring chemical
contamination of the womb, poor nutrition, childhood traumas, toxic beliefs,
and so on. It is now self-evident that many who have resigned themselves to a
life of submission have been browbeaten into it by others who stand to gain
from it. It’s nothing any self-respecting god would inflict on anyone, that’s
for sure! Krishna makes that abundantly clear in this and the next verse. He is
as much the undoer of caste as its instigator. That means caste is not fixed.
It is designed to help people find their comfort zone, and the minute it
imposes discomfort it is to be discarded. The Gita’s advice is to cast off all
bondage, systematic and otherwise, and move toward freedom.
idea that social stratification should be based on merit is an ideal that has
occasionally been dabbled in but never achieved, and at the current writing
there is a strong worldwide drift back to crushing rigidity based on race and
class. The perplexing thing is how easily contented with the status quo most
humans are. A meritocracy in the workplace would seem to be obviously of
tremendous value to everyone, but it is actively fought by those with the best
positions and not eagerly embraced by the rest. Instead there are various
arrangements enshrining faintly disguised forms of master-slave relationships.
Such necrotic systems are maintained essentially through fear, underlining the
importance for the spiritual aspirant of overcoming their fears first. A
healthy society would strive to eradicate fear along with injustice, but a
strong belief in its efficacy in controlling the population continues to vitiate
the Absolute’s creation.
caste system will be examined in considerably more depth at XVIII, 41-45. For
now we just need to note that caste according to the Gita is based on innate
disposition and not any accident of birth. The real crime is in its rigidity,
whether imposed from within or without.
am not affected by works, nor have I any interest in the benefit of works; he
who understands Me in this manner comes no more under the bondage of works.
Absolute’s relation to the manifested world is wholly indefinable. The Gita’s
best effort comes in Chapter IX, 4-6: “By Me all this world is pervaded, My
form unmanifested; all beings have existence in Me and I do not have existence
in them. And further, beings do not exist in Me; behold My status as a divine
mystery; further, Myself remaining that urge behind beings, I bear them but do
not exist in them either. As the great (expanse of) air filling all space has
its basis in pure extension, thus you should understand all existences as
having their basis in Me.” There is an unresolvable paradox here, a
simultaneous connection and unbridgeable gulf.
works, and most significantly those meant to reconnect the seeker with the
Absolute, have an effect only on the manifested realm itself. If works could
have an effect on anything, it could not be the Absolute, because cause and
effect imply changing from one thing or state to another. The Absolute is
necessarily changeless, by definition lacking in nothing. Therefore works have
positive and negative impacts on the supplicant and the world, but can in no
way impact the One Beyond.
is the primary distinction between a philosophy like the Gita and a religion
like the Vedas. Religion is all about vying for the Lord’s attention, and
receiving beneficial paybacks for sacrifices performed. The Gita
discountenances all such contractual behavior, and considers adherence to
ritual as a form of bondage, which is the precise meaning of this verse.
does not stop religious-minded lovers of the Gita from reconfiguring its
message to suit their preferences. Krishna’s paean to a scientific attitude has
been subsumed in a widespread belief that he will reform the seeker himself if
“elusively subtle” unitive action includes an awareness of the reciprocal
nature of action within manifestation. Pros and cons are balanced and canceled
out against each other, resulting in freedom due to apprehension of the
Absolute ground that includes all aspects together. But even the term
‘resulting’ is misleading. The ground is there; it is obscured by the play of
events, but when they are neutralized by yoga they become transparent. We don’t
say the mountain results from sweeping away the clouds in front of it. It is
there all along. Whether or not we can see it, we can know it always is.
vast amount of effort goes into “sweeping clouds away,” in other words, in
striving to attain what is already present. Think of all the rituals in all the
religions in the world, and that’s just part of it. This is the bondage of
works referred to in the present verse. The clouds keep coming back, because
they belong there. The only value in all that effort is that some of it is also
beneficial to the world itself. Meaning soup kitchens and clothing drives feed
the hungry and clothe the naked, period. That’s the level on which works have
an impact, and it’s plenty good enough. The Absolute is not interested or
affected in the least.
does not mean we should turn our backs on the problems of the world and immerse
ourselves in a titanic abstraction. The harmony of the Absolute is to be
brought into our everyday actions, just not as a way of impressing any
imaginary beings or bettering our heavenly credit score. We engage with the
world and its complexities simply for their own sake—and for ours.
ancients performed work after knowing in this manner, therefore do that kind of
work also, as was performed by the ancients, desiring emancipation in times
is not a call to follow traditional patterns of servile behavior, as often
supposed. What the verse says is that even when knowing in an enlightened
manner, the ancients continued to do work. They didn’t quit because it suddenly
seemed pointless. Arjuna is advised to be active in that way also, in keeping
with Krishna’s emancipating instructions.
isn’t that there is any particular difference in what your actions are, it’s
that the way they are done and understood is completely different. For
instance, you can do household chores as if they are drudge jobs dictated by
your role in life, or you can do them as a fresh and fun way to engage in the
world, transforming your tiny part of it from dirty to clean one bit at a time.
The well-known saying, “Before enlightenment, chop wood and carry water; after
enlightenment, chop wood and carry water,” embodies this concept. The closer we
are to a unitive vision, the more our efforts can be seen for exactly what they
are, without excess baggage based on our conditioning.
is no point in trying to decode what the Gita tells you to do, because it
doesn’t tell you what to do. It’s left up to you. You are the one to decide
your actions based on factors you choose, most importantly on which actions
bring the greatest happiness to the greatest number. Following guidelines would
kill the spirit of freedom the Gita seeks to rekindle.
what is action and what is inaction even intelligent men here are confused. I
shall indicate to you that action on knowing which you will be emancipated from
does not necessarily require more book learning to understand the subtleties of
action. Actually, less educated folk often have a better grasp of action’s
nuances than the eggheads. Common sense, that rarest of human qualities,
requires seeing the essence of situations clearly. Intelligence can exhibit the
unhelpful trait of appending lots of additional irrelevancies onto simple
circumstances. Both religious and rational superstitions may be overlaid onto
problems, complicating them no end.
was listening to a Christian kindergarten teacher read a story to some
six-year-olds. The story included a harmless pratfall of the kind intended to
make children laugh. On cue all the kids giggled. In horror the teacher stopped
the story, and in a severe voice scolded, “Children, children! What would Jesus
do! That’s not nice! Shame on you!” The kids were all visibly confused and
humiliated, suddenly unsure of themselves. There’s no doubt that in the future
none of them will laugh at something funny in a story without first deciding
whether it’s okay, if it has the stamp of official approval or not. Then it’s
no longer laughter, but a calculated pretense of activity. There’s no joy in
it, only scheming. Multiply that incident at least a millionfold and you have
the modern well-educated person, bound with layer after layer of cords of
inhibitions, desperately seeking a list of authorized activities to subscribe
to. It’s heartbreaking, really.
its course the Gita will try to get us back to the Garden of Eden, the state
before shame poisoned all our actions. To regain a childlike openness and
combine it with a seasoned and nonjudgmental intelligence is one way of
understanding the goal of the study. To that end, it is referring to real
intelligence here, not the usual muddled state of half-educated mind that
passes for intelligence. And we should never presume that acting with expertise
is a simple matter, expressible in a trite prescription. Prescriptions, as in
lists of authorized beliefs or behaviors, are out of date the minute they are
writ in stone. Our motivations have to come from within and not without, or
better yet, a happy marriage of inner and outer. S. Radhakrishnan puts it well
in his commentary: “We must find out the truth of our own highest and innermost
existence and live it and not follow any outer standard. Our svadharma, outward
life, and svabhava, inner being, must answer to each other. Only then will
action be free, easy and spontaneous.” (73)
has to understand about action and understand also what is wrong action; again,
one has to have a proper notion of non-action; the way of action is elusively
subtle indeed. Comprehensible, but tricky. It helps to have a wise teacher who
can explain things adequately. In lieu of that, we have to perform a serious
key is to distinguish the horizontal and the vertical with regard to action.
The horizontal comprises everyday interactions, collectively called the
transactional world. Our job, friendships, physical activities, educational
studies—basically everything related to the “outside” world, including our
thoughts—are transactional. We do something and it has an effect, or we do it
in exchange for something else. This is the realm of duality, in which
distinguishing between right and wrong actions is important. You must do your
job well to keep it. If you aren’t nice to your friends and family you will
lose them too. Poorly performed physical exercise can cause injury, but well
done it is very healthful. Education tones the brain muscle, but if you don’t
pay attention you don’t learn anything. Short-sighted government will produce
famine and conflict, but well done it harmonizes the nation. The horizontal is
the aspect of reality where expertise in the choice and execution of action is
activity, however, above and beyond its practical aspect, is related to the
vertical core of life, which must be approached differently. The mystery of
tuning in to the Absolute occurs in a direct relationship between the
individual and the whole. Dual factors are to be discarded as irrelevant or
distracting to a focus on spirit. Often this paring-down process takes place
outside of the social arena to minimize confusion, both of the seeker and of
the society inevitably steeped in a fixed and limited perspective. Social
structures require a time lag that drags us out of the blissful flow of the
now. They should be seen as consequential by independent spirits, not causal.
most elusively subtle part of all this is how to infuse vertical values into
the horizontal without disrupting either. A clear grasp of these distinctions
is helpful in preventing confusion. An improper integration may lead to
religious warfare or a theocracy that mandates purportedly spiritual values
that are in fact horizontal. Haphazardly mixing vertical values into horizontal
life can even produce a murderous cult where, since good and evil are the same,
why not practice evil? Or else imagining that God wants you to kill all those
who have different ideas. Instead, the love engendered by diving into the vertical
core should be able to permeate the horizontal in a way that enhances the
actualization of beauty, truth and goodness in life. It’s a gentle process from
which force is necessarily absent. Force is required only to inculcate
egotistical, selfish programs.
or unitive action may be defined as the harmonious interlacing of vertical
ideals and horizontal practicalities. Thus, as Krishna has been trying to get
across to Arjuna since the beginning, situations that come up related to our
natural tendencies—no matter how challenging—are a great blessing: golden
opportunities to put our ideals into practice.
who is able to see action in inaction and inaction in action—he among men is
intelligent; he is one of unitive attitude, while still engaged in every
(possible) kind of work.
pair of concepts perfectly satisfies the Gita’s orientation to dialectical
balance, and offers a preeminent example of how paradox is transcended in
Vedanta. Unitive action is achieved by pondering and nurturing the dynamism
within inaction as well as the stillness at the heart of every activity.
are layer after layer of implications here. One of the more obvious is that in
spiritual life we cannot just go on doing what we’re used to doing. Realization
is not simply a matter of refining our current knowledge to make it better;
it’s a radically new way of thinking. The synthetic awareness of yoga is not
attained by linear logic. If we want to effect a transformation, we have to
stop, break out of our familiar patterns, and then begin developing in the new
direction. The stopping requires inaction to be brought into our normal course
in its various incarnations is a simple, non-traumatic way to initiate changes
via inaction. Sometimes it isn’t radical enough, however, and instead becomes
its own security blanket—a tentative gesture in place of a full stop. A
soul-stirring event is often required to mobilize the requisite energy. For
Arjuna, the intensity of an impending battle pressed him to begin his search.
Later, his new orientation will be galvanized by the soma ritual, the ancient ceremony
of psychedelic medicine administered by a wise guide, after which the seeker is
almost never content with the same old ruts.
Upanishads depict the seeker as resembling a large fish gently drifting with
the current of a broad river, the river of time and evolution. At intervals it
nearly bumps one bank or the other, representing the perceptual and conceptual
aspects of life, and with a small but powerful flick of its tail propels itself
back into midstream. Because we smoothly immerse ourselves in the flow when we
are calmest, this is the model of action in inaction. Inaction by itself would
leave us stranded on one of the banks.
are drawn to become a seeker by the realization that no matter how a person
flails and thrashes, the river remains the same. No individual action is able
to alter the river’s course; therefore there is inaction in every action.
arises from the vasanas inside us—what we now call genetic potentials—seeking
and finding avenues of expression. Whenever we act in concert with those inner
promptings we nourish the seeds to grow into complex entities that also produce
more seeds for future occasions. If we make a conscious effort to hold back
from expressing them, they may sprout, but then die without progeny, over time
reducing their quantity. Attaining to this type of inaction is the most active
spiritual enterprise. Conversely, if we merely go along with our promptings,
acting as we are impelled, it is our inner inaction that allows the outer
actions to proliferate and cause us grief.
difference between the gushing out of the stream of our vasanas and the great
river of life is the difference between the self and the Self, the personal and
the universal. The more we hone and focus our individual proclivities, the more
they attune with the overarching pattern, and the more harmonized we feel.
Conversely the more we allow the universal in, the more our individuation is
strengthened in healthy ways.
helpful technique is to meditate on the concept “I am not the doer.” When
caught up in action, we can observe that it is happening and we are
participating in it, but we are not the cause. We aren’t really doing anything.
The ego has been trained to think of itself as the source of what we do, yet it
is merely the final portal through which action passes, as it becomes
actualized from its source inside to its expression in the world. Restraining
the thought “I am the doer,” allows much more room for action to manifest in an
viewed, the vertical is inactive and the horizontal is active. The former
incorporates our varied potentials, while the latter consists of the ones that
have been promoted into existence. The intelligent seeker integrates the
vertical with the horizontal elements, bringing each to bear on the other. They
are not treated separately. The inaction of the vertical infuses every
horizontal action, and the unfolding turbulence of horizontal events is unified
and pacified by relating them to the steady state of the vertical.
another angle, the contemplative who sits outwardly calmly has to fight off a
mental torrent of distractions in order to remain focused, patiently setting
each one aside as it appears. There is constant activity required to maintain
that inactive state. As soon as action is acceded to by getting up from the
seat of contemplation and reentering the flow of events, the blissful progress
of the quiet state ends.
next section through verse 23 elaborates this complicated subject.
one whose works are all devoid of desire and willful motive, whose (impulse of)
action has been reduced to nothing in the fire of wisdom, is recognized as a
knowing person by the wise.
too often, readers of the Gita come to understand it as advocating a lack of
motivation. Radhakrishnan perhaps over-generalizes but has a good point
nonetheless when he says: “While the Buddhist ideal exalts a life of
contemplation, the Gita attracts all those souls who have a relish for action
and adventure. Action is for self-fulfilment.” (73)
real aim of the Gita is to teach us how to come to know ourselves, to know our
dharma or innate talents, and then to express them with expertise. Motivation
to become free of bondage and discover the Absolute within ourselves and our
world is basic to a spiritual life. So seekers need to be eager to learn to
function effectively. What the Gita does advocate is not having selfish
motivations and not having expectations about where your actions will lead you.
We certainly should have goals and pursue them, but just not defray our
enjoyment to the future. We should be engaged here and now at every stage of
is good advice on routine matters as well, whether we know our dharma or not.
Take for example that you have found you have a serious illness. Don’t imagine
the Gita is telling you to ignore it and it will go away. It is an indication
that something is amiss and needs to be rectified. You begin to examine
yourself with the goal of finding out what’s wrong so you can change it. It’s
not that the Absolute wants you to be sick so you can learn to suffer in
silence or expire meekly. You have to deal with it, and there are no printouts
with explanations anywhere. You have to go forward in darkness. Subtracting
expectations means you don’t merely pin your hopes on returning to the state of
health you enjoyed when you were five years old. That would be a kind of
escapism, trying to be somewhere else. Instead you accept how you feel and tune
into it. You take what you learn from tests and doctors and do research, and
you adopt a regimen and follow it. You can’t be sure if you will recover, but
it’s fair to want to and absurd not to want to. A popular idea of disinterest
or detachment is that you don’t care if you recover or not. How awful! No, you
care, but you don’t put your life on hold until you enter a different state.
Caring isn’t the same as worrying, either. You do your best even in the thick
of the illness.
art forms require a honing of craft before they go beyond self-indulgent
dabbling. It is very exciting to get better and better at something you love.
If you weren’t motivated, you might do one thing one day and something else the
next, and always remain a beginner. Dancing or singing beautifully isn’t simply
a matter of letting go of your inhibitions, there is a lot to bring to the art,
and when you do, something spectacular is communicated to your audience. You,
too, are uplifted by it. The Gita is saying that you should be motivated by the
joy of expressing the possibilities of life, and then every moment is perfect.
If you think you won’t be any good until you are on stage at the national
theater or win a gold medal at the Olympics, you are likely to experience an
endless series of disappointments. That type of motivation is strong, but it oppresses
your soul and makes your happiness dependent on external circumstances. It’s
really very warped in terms of personal values. Instead you should enjoy every
stage of your growth, while remaining eager to learn the next thing, and the
key to avoiding confusion here is to make the distinction between necessary or
obligatory action and voluntary action. The Gita’s approach is aimed at the
seeker of wisdom, not job applicants. Very often the quest for food, shelter
and a mate requires some degree of directed activity stemming from
self-interest. But in relationships and learning situations not impelled by
necessity, Krishna’s advice to abandon desire excels. We block the Tao, the
free flow of the moment, to the extent that we have our own agenda superimposed
on it. To tap into this ever-renewing participation, we must follow these
instructions and reduce our “desire and willful motive” to zero.
this information fuels the fire of wisdom to burn away all selfish motivations
in order to be able to meet life on its own terms, as it is. The fire of wisdom
is the same as the action/inaction amalgam of the previous verse, which reduces
the impulsion of the vasanas, eventually to a minimum. This distinguishes the
intelligent balancing and neutralization of conditionings from their mere
knowing person of this verse is a translation of panditam—pundit. Current pundits are usually promoting their own
agenda, which skews every bit of what they have to say in favor of their
desired ends. The wise recognize this as being of less than no value. Great
teachers—true pundits—are those who can accurately apprehend each new situation
and respond to it based on its own parameters. They must be wholly open, fluid
and flexible, free of hidden agendas.
attachment for the benefit of works, ever happy and independent, though such a
man be engaged in work, (in principle) he does nothing at all.
noted before, one of the Gita’s main contributions to human refinement is
relinquishment of attachment to the
benefit of works. That is not the same as relinquishing the benefits of what we
do. We are not being asked to abandon performing actions, either, only our
fixed expectations of what they will accomplish, permitting us to be more open
themselves are impossible to give up entirely, and life becomes absurd if we
spend all our time trying to stifle them. The knowing person in question
responds expertly to the requirements of the moment, but doesn’t expect the
response to have any particular effect. How the world reacts to our presence is
very often a surprise, and that is part of what makes living the miracle of
life so entertaining. So we should feel free to enjoy the benefits of our
efforts, but not be limited in what we expect those efforts to produce.
Disappointment is born of thwarted expectations, and its only value is to teach
us to be more open in outlook.
The eminent poet Robert
Frost once said that he wasn’t a radical in his youth because he didn’t want to
be a conservative in his old age. Radicals have programs to save the world, and
when these fall short of the ideals that spawned them it is almost impossible
not to become disappointed. Disappointment in the outcomes of their actions
makes people “turn off” to their surroundings, becoming selfish and
conservative in the worst sense of the term. Bitter and disillusioned old age
is their lot, unless they can relinquish their attachment to success in
“fixing” the world.
we stop having expectations that our wonderful ideas will have positive
repercussions, we are more free to meet the next moment and the next. We become
“happy and independent.” Dependency means our state of mind is going to be
affected by how the world reacts to us. Independence means we do what we can,
but if someone takes it poorly we don’t become disillusioned or bitter. Our
well-grounded happiness persists through thick and thin.
19 and 20 flesh out verse 18, especially the end here that reads “though such a
man be engaged in work, (in principle) he does nothing at all.” This is
inaction in action at its best.
free of all expectancy and of subjugated relational self-consciousness, who has
given up all possessiveness, and is engaged merely bodily in actions—he does
not acquire evil.
the same argument, the Gita makes it plain that having expectations throws
things out of balance, which is precisely what evil is: being out of balance.
We are reining in the mind here, and its expectations range far and wide, so
they must be curbed.
things without entertaining expectations is as thorny a problem as acting with
detachment, which is closely related. They may even be two descriptions of the
same thing. Our first thoughts are likely to be that this is a form of death:
that not having expectations means you can’t have a vision to work toward, you
shouldn’t take pleasure in life, or care about outcomes. I can only advise that
we take it as a given that we should
take pleasure in life, have grand visions, and work meaningfully, and that this
implies a certain level of care about outcomes. But then we should see what’s
extraneous to such a healthy outlook and eliminate it.
our hopes on things that fail to come about demonstrates the useless side of
expectations. Hoping for something particular to happen causes us to defer our
presence in the Now in favor of imaginary future gains. Moreover, mentally
transferring the initiative to others saps our abilities and vitiates our need
to function. This in turn causes us to look outside ourselves for solutions:
somebody else will take care of things. This goes very deep because our early
days on earth as babies were dominated by our caregivers taking charge of
everything for us, while we lay at ease in our bassinets. Those were most
definitely the “good old days.”
get it right we first have to extract all the false notions from what we’re
imagining, which brings our expectations down to size. Then if we realize that
things are inevitably going to turn out differently than what we expect anyway,
we can adopt a wait and see attitude about what our actions are going to
accomplish. Such changes as actually do occur in our world come in part from
the tide of the times and in part from the efforts of ordinary people like us
on circumstances with which we have a direct connection. They are never
accomplished by wishful thinking by itself.
important part of the wisdom sacrifice, which is the Gita’s highest form of
yoga, is to step back and take a good look at what’s bothering us. It’s almost
always true that we are being misled or are misleading ourselves. Correcting
this may not solve the world’s problems, but it does allow you to keep your
head above water and retain your sanity. And sometimes you can even see your
way clear to a real solution.
relational self-consciousness,” means that your transactional mentality needs
to be put on hold for the period of your meditation. The part of the mind that
deals with the world is to be given a rest for awhile, though this is not to be
taken as an injunction for every moment. There are times to transact your
business, and there are times to contemplate and remain quiet, with wandering
thoughts held in abeyance. The rare yogi can remain steady in the midst of
every activity, but it takes a lot of practice.
relational self-consciousness also includes the corollary idea that in
interactions with people you should moderate your own interests and focus on
the other person, or better yet the whole situation. Doing this properly
produces a bipolar, reciprocal interaction that is the key factor in
apprehending the Absolute, dressed as it is in the clothing of Creation. When
we let the other in, we are in essence letting the Absolute in. Just be sure to
not let you out when you let it in. The aim is equality, not abasing yourself
to raise the other.
of the key points that makes Nataraja Guru’s translation superior to all others
is found in this verse. The word aparigraha
is universally translated as giving up all possessions, but he translates it as
giving up all possessiveness. What a world of difference in that slight
alteration! For thousands of years sincere seekers have been giving up their
possessions, imagining it opened some magical doorway to realization. But the
possessions themselves are by and large irrelevant. It’s the sense of wanting
to possess that needs to be overcome, which is a far more profound and complex
is an interesting word. A means not. Pari means universally, round, about (in
space and time), in the direction of. Graha
means to seize or grasp for. So aparigraha means non-grasping, not always
trying to seize everything around in the space-time continuum. Not trying to
make everything your own. As the Isa Upanishad says, “Whose is wealth? Renounce
and enjoy.” We participate even in the enjoyment of our neighbors having
something we might otherwise covet. If we’re all in this together, why not?
Guru calls practices like giving up possessions to achieve a nongrasping
mentality “opening the door from the hinge side,” in other words, using
physical means to bring about psychological changes. It is nearly impossible to
do away with possessiveness by merely giving up possessions, many of which
might even make living simpler and more pleasant. Religious cults often collect
all the material (and monetary) goods of their participants, using this (mis)translation
as their scriptural justification. Refugees from these cults frequently
discover that the poverty they have embraced has thrown them into a basic
struggle for existence that makes attaining peace much more difficult.
page 403 of Love and Blessings, Nitya
Chaitanya Yati offers guidelines for living in an ashram as a dedicated seeker.
The last entry gives a clear sense of the meaning of aparigraha:
“Let one have no material possession which is too
to part with, especially in a situation where sharing is more beautiful than
possessing. However, let one not be deprived of anything for which one has a
natural right simply because one is weak or insensitive to its value.”
scriptures literally is perilous. Words take on different meanings over time,
and there are often many ways to translate the same word. One needs to dig down
to the meaning the words are attempting to convey. This is one of the valuable
aspects of “searching questioning,” as recommended in verse 34 below. By
contrast, many religions consider questioning to be a sign of loss of faith and
a threat to their domination. Because of this, some even treat questioning as a
mortal sin, and consign seekers of truth to eternal condemnation in hell.
is an extension of wanting to manipulate circumstances for one’s own benefit.
When the advice of this section is put into practice, when we aim for the good
of the whole world rather than focusing exclusively on our own wants, the
pressure eases off of its own accord, nearly effortlessly, like opening a door
by the handle in Nataraja Guru’s analogy.
this verse suggests we should engage “merely bodily” in actions. It’s easy to
take this wrong and think we should act mindlessly, like automatons, and all
the time no less. A recipe for God’s Zombie Army. What the Gita is trying to
say in its cryptic language is that our minds and hearts should be directed
toward contemplative matters, and that action is primarily used to support the
needs of the body. The body is viewed as a platform for meditation and union
with the divine, and as such it should be maintained in good order. But it is
not to be considered an end in itself, since that draws energy away from more
subtle and rewarding pursuits.
this advice is best applied to periods of contemplation. There is no reason to
hold back on artistic engagement with mundane matters, which beautifies and
embroiders life. Delicate cooking, decorative environments, spine-tingling
lovemaking, and enlightening conversation, among many other things, are not to
be ruled out. A very few people are happiest with fulltime contemplation, but
for most of us it is just one part of a well-rounded life. Engagement with the
divine infuses our everyday activities with intensity and expertise, while in
turn horizontal activities provide the field of expression for those very
qualities. Arjuna is a case in point. When he wanted to throw it all away and
become a hermit, Krishna called him back to his life, in which he is a stalwart
upholder of solid, everyday values.
with chance gains, unaffected by conflicting pairs (of interests),
non-competitive, remaining the same in gain or no gain, he remains unbound in
spite of having been active.
take things as they come, because they DO come. Our needs are being met at
every moment, if not our wants. The Absolute really does maintain the universe.
Imagine the chaos if this weren’t so. This verse’s model of yogic equanimity is
a far cry from the obsessive drive to engineer destiny at the heart of modern
beliefs. Knitting acceptance of the universe’s support with individual
initiative and striving is a truly subtle yogic challenge.
section is all about maintaining an optimal attitude. Events produce clashes
and challenges of all types, and there are many ways to respond to them.
Krishna is teaching a way of great depth and maturity, one that should help us get
the most from the opportunities that present themselves.
have several friends who like to “go with the flow,” living like modified
sannyasins and managing to make ends meet, for the most part. It’s eminently
possible in an affluent, if not particularly generous, society. They believe
they would be selling out to the enemy if they took a job for money, yet their
society insists that money is the basis of exchange, and requires it for pretty
much everything. The ancient Indian model—drying up now even in India—provided
active support for such people. In most of the world people like my friends are
seen as worthless freeloaders, no matter how valuable and caring their
contributions. So they must make some compromises to cover their sustenance,
and it galls them.
employment can be treated as one of the inevitably necessary parts of life, and
so something to be just taken care of, like washing the dishes and brushing the
teeth. The trick is to have faith that we can still be ourselves no matter what
compromises we have to make.
the advice here sounds like it advocates extreme detachment, it doesn’t have to
be taken that way. The activity mentioned can easily include doing a job for
pay, and the advice is just as excellent as if we were living a mendicant
lifestyle, sitting by the roadside with our begging bowl, or cardboard sign for that matter. Having the balanced
attitude indicated is ideal in every environment, and not too many of us are
inclined to a life devoid of mental stimulation. So let’s analyze the verse
from a practical standpoint.
can be satisfied with chance gains if we have a modicum of faith that gains
will come to us. In a harmonious society, opportunities continually come along,
and in a disharmonious one they at least occasionally come along. The first
advice is to not be driven by dissatisfaction, the way almost everyone is,
because it’s reactive. Instead, be driven by an inspired vision or goal, and
move toward it as circumstances permit. There will always be setbacks, but they
can be taken more lightly if they are considered just part of how chance
up to now has created creatures who make our decisions based on avoiding pain
and moving toward pleasure. Dissatisfaction is painful, or at least irritating,
so we are inclined to try to escape it one way or another. In doing so we may
miss important life lessons; therefore as yogis we are directed to accept pain and
pleasure as being of secondary importance. We are emerging from simple
reactivity to a higher consciousness based on the unshakable strength of a wise
people are driven to fight for promotion at work, and are always wheedling and
prevaricating with an eye toward improving their prospects. The Gita’s advice
is to keep your cool, and take what comes as a result of chance in the broadest
sense. Keeping cool is remaining in the same heightened state whether the
breaks go for you or against you. We are given a lifetime to practice, and we
can measure our progress by how upset we are by the luck of the draw. If we are
thrown off kilter, it means the baser attitude is drawing us down to its level.
Instead, we should exemplify a better attitude, and raise our fellows up to it
if we can.
pairs of interests are what yogis eternally balance within themselves, and the
workplace provides them in bunches. The bare bones conflict of interest is
between free time and work time, and a yogi should not chafe over work time as
if it were free time lost. Most of us are understandably prejudiced in favor of
free time. Type A people chafe the opposite way: free time is work time lost.
They feel cast adrift without a program to carry out. Why not realize that we
have to work sometimes and not work at other times, and accept each in its
proper place and time? Then we won’t be either a discontented misfit or an
obsessive neurotic with no life outside of work.
doesn’t mean we don’t care, or that we shouldn’t strive for excellence. It
means we don’t try to beat the other guy, even while doing our best. We can be
happy that the other person succeeds too. Competitive people secretly desire
the failure of their competition, counting that as personal success. It’s
really a very ugly attitude. A yogi cares about everyone else, even unsavory
characters who are competitive toward them.
is filled with ups and downs, and is seldom the proverbial bowl of cherries for
long. Affiliation with the Absolute means attaining a steady state of happiness
that is not displaced by misfortune. If our happiness depends on our gains, our
ups, it will drain away when we experience losses—just when we need it most.
Happiness has to be firmly grounded in something stable, meaning the Absolute
or the unitive state.
idea of competition comes from what is essentially a lack of faith in “chance
gains.” The fear is that there isn’t enough, therefore I must get mine first or
else I won’t get what I need. Part of the problem is that we have magnified our
needs beyond all good sense, and those expectations should be reduced lest our
fears get out of hand. If we become satisfied that everything is the Absolute
and so all our needs will somehow be met, the fear dissipates. This doesn’t
mean that everything we need will be handed to us on a platter. We still have
to stand up as full participants in life. We are just giving up a certain
cultivated cravenness and desperation.
fixation on making things happen in a certain well-defined way creates bondage
on many levels, conceptual as well as actual. By becoming flexible and fearless
one avoids the grooves of habitual activity, thereby remaining unbound in spite
of being engaged in the world. This is a key goal of Krishna’s teaching.
knows how a simple act like marriage can bind one legally. There are positive
legal bonds, such as marriage, and there are negative legal bonds, such as
punishment for criminal activity. Employment contracts fall somewhere in the
middle. But the Gita is speaking of something different, the karmic entrainment
that ensues from any given course of action. Take an example from the modern
world. Two different companies make, let’s say, toothbrushes. One is well made
and lasts a long time but is more expensive than the other, which is cheap and
wears out quickly. Due to the initial lower cost of the latter, people buy it
in droves. Over time they pay more, because they have to replace it so often,
but each time it is the cheaper option so it wins out. Soon the better made
alternative goes out of business and that option disappears. From now until
hell freezes over the only choice is a crappy toothbrush, and everyone is bound
to the results of their unpremeditated and shortsighted actions.
you lead people to believe you’re something other than what you are, they’ll
believe it and pretty soon you’ll have to live up to what you were just
pretending to be before. Famous people often feel the sting of this. They live
up to a persona that nets them a lot of attention and money, but after the
initial rush they begin to feel trapped and have to start wearing sunglasses to
avoid all their fans, who want to treat them as if they were exactly what they imagine them to be.
actions create this kind of bondage, unless they are performed in good faith
with childlike (but not naïve!) openness, as the Gita is recommending here.
the case of one whose attachments are gone, who has gained freedom, whose
spiritual being has been founded on wisdom, his works, having a sacrificial
character only, become wholly dissolved.
verse summarizes the preceding section.
a widespread perception that letting yourself go will cause harm to others.
Freedom is a dangerous thing. You have to hold yourself in check so that others
will be safe from you. Actually, it’s the repression itself that causes injury
and misery, first to you and then through induction to others around you. Free
people are kind and considerate and leave plenty of room for others to operate.
They tend to be healers, and bring out the best in those around them. So you
are doing everyone a favor by relaxing your fixation on rules and regulations
and learning to operate without such crutches.
some ways our psyche is like a rat, in the ancient Chinese view the smartest of
the animals by the way, the first to come sit at the Buddha’s feet. Left to its
own devices it lives an expert life, unerringly guided by its intuitive
unfoldment. Our mind could live expertly and intuitively as well. But for
scientific purposes we prefer to keep it in a cage. We build social mazes, and
then feel we have to guide our personal rat through them using some kind of
negative reinforcement technique, like an electric cattle prod. Our “rat” would
likely do as well or better without such guidance, but we’ve been trained to
believe in prodding, and we have no faith in the rat’s—our psyche’s—instincts.
is a material expression of our inner state of attachment related to our desire
to control. We identify with who we are in terms of what we’ve done, where
we’ve vacationed, our family history, and so on. The photographs and
memorabilia are proof we exist. They pile up high and deep in the course of a
lifetime, and chain us to their static presence. I know people who spend all
their free time tracing their family history, or organizing boxes of stuff in
hopes it will someday matter to someone. The hoard makes a prison as
effectively as solid walls. If the hoarder dared to “sacrifice” the hoard, the
gain would be freedom. We already know we exist, so proof is unnecessary. But
the dropping of attachments has to come from the inside, from the realization
of our intrinsic value, or some other substitute for self-confidence will
to say, preserving historically useful or instructional items does not
constitute hoarding. Sorting the wheat from the chaff requires a basic “wisdom
sacrifice” of deciding what is worthwhile and what isn’t.
to popular opinion, memory and attachments are not the same thing. Memory is
essential to our existence as full-fledged human beings, as cases of amnesia or
Alzheimer’s amply demonstrate. But memories should inform the present in a
living, vibrant way. They should be part of the here and now, not a remote
place to hide out. Collecting piles of expired matter is not going to inform
anyone, it’s just going to be a headache for somebody else to dispose of when
we die. The odd mania of a few prominent people like Thomas Jefferson to save
everything for future historians has made everyone think they’d better follow
suit. But this is just one more curse of fame, which we should be happy to
avoid. J. Krishnamurti has said, in The
Book of Life, about why we seek fame:
Why? Because we really
don't love what we are doing. If you loved to sing, or to paint, or to write
poems - if you really loved it - you would not be concerned with whether you
are famous or not. To want to be famous is tawdry, trivial, stupid, it has no
meaning; but, because we don't love what we are doing, we want to enrich
ourselves with fame…. You are just a creative human being living anonymously,
and in that there is richness and great beauty.
him the Absolute is the act of offering, the Absolute is the substance offered
into the Absolute which is the fire, offered by (him), the Absolute, the end to
be reached by him being even the Absolute, by means of his peace supreme of
long series of verses examining sacrifice begins here. Last and best on the
list is the wisdom sacrifice, which is discussed under verse 33. We should keep
in mind that sacrifice is much more than giving something up; its literal
meaning is “to make sacred.” Sacrifice is activity motivated purely by free
will; non-obligatory action. Free choice is a major component of sacredness.
Ritual is prescribed, and therefore falls into a second category of partially
binding action, voluntarily undertaken.
verse presents the Gita’s highest model for freely chosen activity. Every
element of the sacrificial situation is seen to be the Absolute. Nothing is
shunted off as separate.
is about much more than a fire ceremony or flower offering: it is a way of life
for every moment. What you offer the world as your energetic participation is
the Absolute, and any substantial contributions you make are the Absolute. You
are doing this not for some distinct “other” but for the Absolute itself in the
form of the other. Even the point of the whole thing is the Absolute. Knowing
that every aspect of life is absolute brings the highest form of peace. Acting
in this way precludes egoism, because all things and all processes are
understood to have a common ground.
universe resembles (or perhaps is) a hologram, where every part contains all
the information possessed by the whole. If this is true, all we have to do is
step back from our fixation on our personal perspective to realize we are in
everything and everything is in us.
every bit of life, including you, is seen as the Absolute, there is no more
strife. There is peace supreme. Not a mere absence of hostility, the
all-embracing unity remains balanced and at peace even in the midst of
details of the fire ceremony in the modern context, along with an explication
of its symbolism, read Chapter 14 of Meditations
on the Self, by Nitya Chaitanya Yati. An excellent essay
on the universe as
a hologram may be found at http://homepages.ihug.co.nz/~sai/hologram.html
referring to the gods is (the nature of) sacrifice of some yogis; others offer
sacrifice into the fire of the Absolute by sacrifice itself.
distinction is first made between dualistic and unitive sacrifice. Dualistic
yogis address some form of deity, while the unitive ones express the Absolutist
version described in verse 24. What this means is that dualism is based on a
contractual relationship with life: I’ll do this in expectation of receiving
that in compensation. Absolutist sacrifice is performed for its own sake,
because it is true to who we are, not because we have been told to do it or we
are expecting something else from it. The first type of sacrifice listed is
religious, and the second is more scientific or philosophic. The choice is
mainly a matter of personal inclination. Chapter XII will deal extensively with
these two styles of relating to the underlying reality.
Guru says of this section (verses 25-32): “Any man who has not attained full
enlightenment is bound to offer a sacrifice according to his own lights
regarding higher values or ideals. To ask any man to do better than what he can
would be neither possible nor fair.” He notes that these are revalued
sacrifices, performed by yogis, and not the ordinary rituals carried out mechanically
translates sacrifice throughout his commentary as “selfless service,” at its
best not too different from my “freely chosen activity.” I much prefer the
latter, however, because it includes the self, a factor even in so-called
selfless acts, and includes a lot of actions that cannot properly be described
as service. Sacrifice can thus describe the way we relate to the world every
moment, instead of being a part-time activity reserved for periods of holiness.
going to add a different slant here, too, that sacrifice is what we do to get
high, to feel really good. This will throw additional light on the meaning of
these verses to the modern mind.
a sense, spiritual life is all about getting high, about rising above the petty
concerns of daily life to access a special state that feels terrific, and at
its best provides revelatory insights into the meaning of life. Ananda, bliss,
is a key component of realization, and the best highs are sacred to those who
experience them. Everybody wants to get high and stay high, but most of the
readily available selections are of inferior quality. The Gita grades them
according to their value and staying power, with the ideal being a state that
is permanent, that doesn’t wear off the next morning.
“worship of the gods” types of high include not only religious worship, but
also sex, drugs and rock and roll. In Chapter IX, verses 20 and 21, Krishna
describes them as lifting the aspirant to heaven but then returning them to
earth when they wear off: “desiring desirable
objects they obtain values which come and go.” These
include the well-known and popular forms of amusement and entertainment,
ranging from bodily sensations to sublime mental gymnastics.
dualistic high is mainly produced by the temporary annulment of oppressive
mental states stemming from our conditioning. Distractions and pain-killing
medicines uncover our native joy, but the conditioned state returns when they
wear off or the show ends. We have to keep repeating the dosage to maintain the
feeling of freedom.
Gita adds another category, unitive sacrifice, that does not peter out when the
carnival is shut down for the night. Through a combination of intelligence,
openness, and penetration into the unknown, a permanent high is mysteriously
accessed. Needless to say, it is considered the best choice. Krishna graciously
concedes that all ways of getting high have some legitimacy, but some are more
dangerous or problematic than others. If you want a good time that doesn’t fade
away at the break of day, seek union with the Absolute.
offer as sacrifice the ear and other such sense organs into the fire of
restraint; others offer the sacrifice of sound and other sense interests into
the fire of the senses.
two sides of the polarity of the senses are referred to here. In meditation one
can either quiet the mind through seeking the absence of sense stimuli, or on
the other hand treating the bombardment of stimuli as of no importance and tuning
it out. Whichever the method chosen, the aim is to free the mind from its
fixation on sensory input and release it to penetrate to whatever else there is.
first method includes meditating in a quiet place, up to and including a cave,
monastery or sensory-deprivation chamber. For those without recourse to such
places, the same effect may be obtained by simply ignoring whatever stimuli are
around while concentering the mind. Being a textbook of dialectic science, the
Gita is careful to address both sides of any polarity.
the ear is mentioned because sound is by far the most distracting and
uncontrollable of the senses. Too bad humans don’t have earlids to go with
is usually performed to achieve something in addition to itself. Shutting down
the senses is not the objective, but merely an important preliminary step to
diving into the flow of the Absolute as a liberated contemplative. Since it is
dualistic to distinguish between ends and means, the Gita portrays this as a
unitive process. One should always unite ends and means into pure action. The
means is already the end in itself. This is the essence of the wisdom
sacrifice, which is more effective than all others, according to this section
dealing with different forms of sacrifice.
our second reading of sacrifice, two ways of getting high with sound are
presented here. You can be a passive listener, attending concerts or lectures
or sermons that inspire you, or you may become a musician yourself, chanting or
strumming to get yourself and other people into a great mood. Sound is
mentioned because it has the most profound ability to affect people, but the
other senses have their moments as well.
the functions of the senses, as also the vital functions, others make as an offering
into the fire of unitive discipline, consisting of self-restraint.
the ear reference, the idea of restraint or tuning out is generalized to
include all the senses, and the vital functions like breathing, digesting,
reproducing, moving about, and so on are thrown in for good measure. All these
are greater or lesser distractions from the contemplative wisdom sacrifice soon
to be recommended by Krishna. Here the act of yoga (unitive discipline)
provides the dialectic synthesis of the previous verse’s thesis and antithesis.
When you are fully absorbed, neither outside stimuli or inner urges to be
stimulated can bother you, and the ordinary functions of the body are reduced
to a minimum or otherwise harmonized. This is an ideal state of being “tuned
religious practices revolve around self-restraint in various guises, such as
hatha yoga, pranayama, and meditation techniques. The spiritual universe
contains worlds upon worlds of paths to realization. The Gita does not advocate
any particular one, though partisans will likely read this section as an
endorsement of their favorite. It is merely cataloguing broad types of sacrificial or
contemplative actions. Forcible restraint as a repetitive practice, while
suitable to certain severe types of seekers, is much more strenuous and time
consuming than the restraint that comes naturally as a byproduct to absorption
of the intelligence.
back is a form of sacrifice, but unitive discipline means that you are absorbed
into a fascination with the Absolute, and so interest in sensory and vital
functions fades out effortlessly. For example, sex is a delightful activity
that occupies a great deal of attention for most people, and it is difficult to
suppress the urge for it. But as the One Beyond is sighted, any excessive
compulsion for sex naturally fades into the background, assuming a normalized
position in life. Unlike more modern and radical disciplines that ban sexual
activity utterly, the Gita doesn’t even mention it, because it is viewed as a
perfectly normal activity. Sex could be considered one of the lesser gods of
verse 12, which when worshipped bring quick results—temporary absorption—but
whose benefits wear off quickly too.
is valuable in sacrificial practice, because vitality is accumulated over time.
Sex at discreet intervals is more intense than if it happens over and over.
Occasional evenings of drunkenness and debauchery can be uplifting, but
continuous indulgence is enervating and stupefying. Going to church once a week
is exciting, but every day it would drive you nuts. And so on. So don’t feel
you have to be constantly doing your practice, whether it is spiritual or
secular. Down time lays the groundwork for better uptime later on.
there are others of object-sacrifice, those of austerity-sacrifice, those who
sacrifice unitive discipline, and those of self-study and wisdom sacrifice, who
are (all) men of self-control and fully accomplished vows.
continues dispassionately listing favorite forms of sacrifice, ways people
imagine they can be carried to the Absolute by what they do. While wisdom
sacrifice is the best, all forms of freely chosen activity are endorsed, so
long as they are suitable to the chooser. All require some degree of
self-control and an element of intention.
list begins with object sacrifice. It’s normally thought of as placing flowers
and fruit on altars or roasting a goat, but it can mean much more than that.
The generous giving of material support includes charity (hey, the soup kitchen
has a place here too!), financial donations, community involvement, down to
pushing your neighbor’s car out of a snowbank or feeding her puppy when she’s
on vacation, pretty much anything that takes time or effort and is outside your
normal routine. There’s no reason not to think of your job as an object
sacrifice, either. Viewed in the right way, almost all tasks contain an element
of service to the greater community. Whatever assistance you offer to anything
beyond your personal space can be used to bring enlightenment, because it lifts
you out of a unhealthy fixation on the limited self. People appreciate the
actual help you give, because wishful thinking doesn’t fill hungry bellies.
is translated here as austerity sacrifice, and refers to the heat generated by
the effort to effect change. Quitting a drug habit is a tapas. Forcing yourself
to practice your music lessons or study for a diploma is tapas. Housecleaning
is tapas. Some types of yoga or meditation involve tapas, because you have to
clear away your busyness and force yourself to sit there or carry out
instructions. None of these happens without intention and a struggle. It takes
a long time for them to become effortless, but gradually they do become easier
as you go along.
discipline is Nataraja Guru’s translation of yoga. In this case it likely
refers to Patanjali’s classic yoga exposition, because it is flanked by
austerity and self-study, two of Patanjali’s primary practices (niyamas). When most people think of
yoga, they conceive it as Patanjali does, dualistically, as a practice leading
to a particular result. The Gita’s yoga is nondual, but we can see that full
acceptance is being granted to the traditional methods. If you have trouble
accepting that you are the Absolute, it isn’t so terrible to imagine that you
are an ordinary person evolving into a higher consciousness, and that certain
steps have to be taken to accomplish this. The joke is that the “higher
consciousness” attained is precisely the nondual, unitive state that is there
svadhyaya, means becoming intimate
with one’s true nature. Guru Nitya has much to say about it in his commentary
on Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, from which we select these tidbits:
The nature of the Self
and the nature of the Absolute are not different. When you try to get into
intimate relation with the nature of the Absolute, that automatically gives
insight into your own nature. Thus, self-study (svadhyaya) manifests…. [It
means] understanding your own resources and applying your abilities to the best
you enter into the discipline of preparing yourself to achieve aloneness, the
most appropriate questions to ask are “Who am I?” and “What is truly mine?”
When people came to Ramana Maharishi and asked him for instruction, he always
had one question to ask them, “Who wants instruction? What is it in you that
says, ‘I am’ and ‘Who am I?’” Whatever your question, need or problem, as a
preliminary to knowing what is yours, you need to ask, “Who am I?”
Svadhyaya is studying “Who or what am I?”
and “What is mine?” “Who am I?” is not a question that can be replied to with
an answer that will remain intact throughout one’s life. We live in a world of
transient names and forms. The answer to “Who am I?” in one situation doesn’t
hold good in another situation. As relativistic conditions continuously change
and move, you need to know what the condition of the next moment will be. That
is why it is said that a single answer does not solve the problem of samsara
(phenomenal world). The vision of the Absolute is not static so that you can
hold on to it. Only when the vision of the Absolute is continuous and
contiguous is the merger into the eternal of any use.
Svadhyaya is generally recognized as the
study of words passed on by seekers who have gone before. The records of the
experiences of wise people are available to us as compendiums of great works.
It is worthwhile to study those books every day. Further, it is very wholesome
to spend at least some time each day with an enlightened person, listening to
their word directly. It is not possible to gather wisdom all in one day, but
each day you can learn a little. Wise persons teach with their words, their
modes of action, their thought processes, and, above all, with their silence.
Attuning to all these aspects will bring conviction.
When what you experience, what you hear
from great people, and what is recorded in the scriptures from time immemorial
all come in one line, then you can be sure that your svadhyaya has been profitable.
(104, 152, 258-9)
it closely resembles self-study, the wisdom sacrifice has its own verse, 33,
and will be examined there.
helpful to note the dialectical structure of this verse. Object sacrifice is
outwardly directed, while austerity sacrifice involves pulling back from
objects and redirecting the energy inward. The two movements are neutralized in
the unitive discipline mentioned (yoga), which remains poised in between,
neither outwardly or inwardly directed. A yogi should always examine behavior
to note its direction and compensate for it in order to maintain a steady
position in the middle ground.
high of object sacrifice comes from appraising the benefit you are conferring
on others, and the high of austerity comes from the benefit you confer on
yourself. A yogi will perform both types of activity, but not base them on any
supposed benefit, but merely because they are the right thing to do at the time
they are done. The yogi’s high is not dependent on success or failure, but simply
on the bliss of being fully alive.
the downward (inward) vital tendencies others sacrifice the upward (outward)
one, and in the outward one the inward likewise; thus countering the
tendencies, they remain ever as those (who resort to the way) of vital breath
we encounter a reference to yogic practices of the modern imagination. This
verse describes the essentials of pranayama, another branch of Patanjali’s
Yoga, known to the West as breathing exercises. The primary vital forces are
called prana and apana, and associated with the ingoing and outgoing breath.
Many abstruse practices channel these energies to various goals, and the power
unleashed is great enough to require a knowledgeable guru for guidance.
hard to think of present-day equivalents other than physical exercises
themselves. Exercise nowadays serves the purpose of regulating the body’s
energies, and provides a natural form of breathing exercise. Swimming and
running especially require breath control and tend to even out the inhalation
and exhalation. So I guess our modern pranayama yogis are mainly found among
wants to feel good and get high, and that’s the point of regulating the vital
forces. When you feel good you can easily turn your thoughts to sublime matters
like advanced problem solving or performance. A lot of pranayama is extreme and
can be dangerous; the ego thrill of doing something exotic that few others know
about is a perverse high all its own. The Gita recommends a simple balanced
version to achieve a relaxed state conducive to contemplation, free from any
desire to impress others. Basically, extroverted and introverted tendencies are
juxtaposed to arrive at a dynamic neutrality. Such a simple yogic technique can
be followed without the guidance of a teacher, as it is unlikely to lead the
practitioner into a blind alley.
abstemious in food, make an offering of vital breaths into vital breaths. All
these are connoisseurs of sacrifice who have gotten rid of evil through
and pranayama in combination is a forcible technique for attaining deep
meditation. When the brain is starved for sugar and oxygen, all sorts of
unusual mental states make an appearance. Some may seem very “holy,” but there are
no guarantees. A lot depends on the mindset they are interpreted with.
technique is part of a survey of general approaches to spirituality prevalent
then and now, and while not disdaining them, Krishna is not especially
endorsing them either. This is not an invitation to enter an occult mystical
path. Stripped of its arcane language, the Gita’s advice is straightforward: it
is helpful to partake in a healthy diet and regular exercise program as part of
a sensible regimen for getting to feel good. As the good Dr. Bronner always
said, “Health is our only real wealth.”
idea of being sparing or thoughtful in food intake in a way that relates to
spiritual practice is transmitted in the following apocryphal Native American
story, Two Wolves:
One evening an old
Cherokee told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people. He said,
“My son, the battle is between two ‘wolves’ inside us all. One is Evil. It is
anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt,
resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego. The other is
Good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence,
empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith.” The grandson thought about
it for a minute and then asked his grandfather: “Which wolf wins?” The old
Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”
of sacrifice” refers to the entire list from verse 25 to the first half of
verse 30. We can detect a subtly humorous touch and gentle derision in Nataraja
Guru’s translation that is not out of place, since a revised ideal is immanent.
All other commentators translate the phrase accurately enough as “knowers of
sacrifice,” meaning honest practitioners of useful actions. The evil referred
to that is overcome by freely chosen activity may be thought of as dross or
imperfections, including dullness or opacity. Ill health. The list in the
Native American fable is not bad, either.
overriding import of this section is that we do many things intelligently in
order to arrive at a state of ease and comfort that is optimal for making rapid
spiritual progress. We should use the resulting pleasant frame of mind to seek
wisdom, yet all too often feeling good is taken as the goal itself. If we make
this mistake, once we are comfortable we are content to laze around and enjoy
superficial amusements. This is a tragic waste. When times get tough, we may be
busy scrambling for our very survival, with nary a thought for philosophic
matters. It is too bad that the unsurpassed material opulence of the present
day has not translated into hordes of people willing and able to seek
heightened awareness. The rarity of a true seeker will be lamented in VII, 3.
who partake of the immortal nectar of sacrificial remains go to the eternal
Absolute. This world is not for one of no sacrifice. How can he have the next?
is a revalued vision of what happens to the eaters of sacrificial remains
mentioned in III, 13. The sacrifice now is a wholehearted and absolutist participation
in the entire world. The yogi is expected to be “satisfied with chance gains,”
in other words, content with the natural and fair portion “left over” from
sacrificial or voluntary action aimed at embodying absolutist ideals. The
“high” of the yogi is not dependent on external influences that need to be
sought and appropriated. Likewise, scheming how to hang on to what should be
freely shared is contrary to the Gita’s intent, and we are assured that it will
maintain our separation from the Absolute. If we are interested in merger, we
should adopt an attitude of generosity.
food to the indigent is righteous enough, but if you take home a prideful
attitude afterwards it has been done in the wrong spirit. Or if you imagine
that it solves the problem of the unequal distribution of wealth, you are
seriously deluded. Mother Theresa, saintly though she was in caring for the
needy in Kolkata, was often criticized for dealing only with effects and not
speaking out about the causes of the problems she ameliorated with such
second half of the verse speaks of the “next world,” seemingly in reference to
the Absolute. Of course, the Absolute is not a world and its attainment doesn’t
lie in the future. Either it is a figure of speech or a wryly humorous goad to
Arjuna, who may still be thinking in terms of future rewards. The point,
though, is that the joy of living is associated with freely chosen activity,
and if you don’t have any, and just live your life out as a slave to the
dictates of others or to the patterns laid down in musty tomes, you are squandering
true birthright is the amrita, the
immortal nectar of pure existence. Mrita
is death, a-mrita is the opposite of
death. Interestingly, amrita is associated with the soma plant that will be
mentioned later as a “food of the gods,” food that allows you to truly see. The
Gita may be subtly advocating an actual soma sacrifice, where divine plants are
eaten to induce visions of everlasting life, which to the ancients was religion
at its best!
many and varied are the sacrifices spread in front of the Absolute. Know them
all as originating in action. Thus understanding them, you shall gain release.
rapid survey of general forms of sacrifice is brought to a conclusion in this
and the next verse. The Gita, far from advising us to pick a path and follow
it, advocates release from the narrowness of all paths.
carefully, the release comes not so much from actually performing the
sacrifices, as from comprehending their overriding unity as more or less
liberating forms of action. The release is that you no longer feel compelled to
follow any particular line of activity, imagining it will lead you to the
Absolute or heaven or something. They all are equally subservient to the
mindset of the practitioner. We should directly enter into union with the
Absolute through wisdom, and not imagine that any particular series of steps
are required. Life is already the greatest miracle; all we have to do is live
it to the full. This is the wisdom that spiritual seekers are meant to glean
from whatever we choose to do.
practically, we do many things throughout the day, and in truth they are all
admixtures of self-will and outside pressure in various proportions. If we merely
go through the motions of carrying out predetermined actions, we may be
accomplishing something but we aren’t growing. We should also examine and
question what we’re doing whenever we have a chance to step back and take a
look at it. In this way we can adjust our behavior, rectify faults, and
discover new and better avenues for improvement. Probably even God had some
additional thoughts after dictating the various scriptures, and wished she
could have expanded on some of the points that caused confusion amongst
mortals. In any case, if we haven’t entertained second thoughts, we should be
worried. It means our mind is closed.
all know songs like Old Time Religion by Jim Reeves, which goes in part:
Gimme that old time
Gimme that old time religion
Gimme that old time
It's good enough for
It was good for dad
It was good for dad
It was good for dad
And it's good enough
Gita is the opposite of old time religion:
it advocates the fresh aliveness of spirit in dynamic interaction with the
world. Truth does not fear questioning, because doubt only aims to depose
falsehood. Truth abides through every upheaval.
to any sacrifice with (valuable) objects is the wisdom sacrifice; all actions
have their culmination in wisdom, Arjuna.
we can see why this chapter is called Jnana Yoga, Unitive Wisdom, even though
it deals primarily with karma or action. The culminating or vanishing point of
everything we do is wisdom, and conversely, wisdom emerges from what we do and
how we comprehend it. We are here to learn and grow, not simply to consume
food, reproduce, and die. The Gita slices through all programs of psychic
development to urge us to understand, to examine and scrutinize, as a foundation
for acting freely.
exactly does wisdom sacrifice mean? It boils down to thinking profoundly about
things, in order to seek and find a unifying vision of understanding. Attending
a Gita class is a wisdom sacrifice. Spending time in introspection is a wisdom
sacrifice. Reading, studying, listening, analyzing—it’s all a wisdom sacrifice.
The words only sound exotic and strange. So in whatever you do in whatever way
you like, ponder the meaning of it and have your thoughts fine-tuned by interaction
with your friends, and ideally with an excellent teacher.
concept of the wisdom sacrifice being superior to ordinary sacrifices is
similar to the comments on verse 21, where giving up possessiveness is seen as superior
to simply giving up possessions. The contemplation of any process is more
important than merely carrying out actual activities. Activities performed
without reflection are little more than slavish rule-abiding. “Actions
culminating in wisdom” means that understanding the principle involved is more
essential than the physical motions, and it confers expertise.
we take ownership as a subject for wisdom sacrifice, this verse would read:
“Superior to sacrificing your possessions, O Arjuna, is to sacrifice your need
to possess, your possessiveness. Doing so will free your attitude, and foster a
more global perspective. What really matters is your state of mind.” This
technique could be applied to a wide range of subjects, with enhanced freedom
and a soaring spirit as the outcome.
this by prostration, by searching questioning, and by service; they will
instruct you (duly) in wisdom—those wise ones who can see the basic principles.
wisdom sacrifice is presented as a humble learning program with three important
facets. Following this simple and very general template you will learn wisdom
in a delightful way. You will learn what is called here tat—this, or That Alone. In other words, it will bring you face to
face with the Absolute.
does not imply lying down and groveling, demeaning yourself before a superior
person, it just means realizing you don’t know everything. You give up being a
wise guy. You suspend your own sense of being in charge and look to a teacher
as a source of wisdom. Otherwise you stay stuck in your current mental
trammels. Arjuna followed this advice correctly in the beginning of the second
chapter when he asked Krishna to teach him and then quieted himself down to
listen. From his occasional questions we can see he maintains this attitude
throughout his apprenticeship. Arjuna was a superior and respected person in
his world, used to running the show, so his prostration—his humbling of
himself—was especially significant.
questioning means never being fully satisfied you know all the answers, but instead
being open to new ideas and even consciously incorporating them in your life.
You don’t just prostrate as an inferior person before the guru, you exercise
your intelligence by digesting the teaching and providing feedback through
incisive questions. The more intelligent the question, the more intelligent the
response from the guru. The disciple’s primary task is to ponder what has been
taught and then to ask for more light in areas where the teaching isn’t clear.
This is actually a process that reveals new fields of truth to both teacher and
means sharing what you’ve learned with others, and helping them in whatever way
appears most appropriate. We tend to have a static view that service means
doing tasks for other people’s benefit, but the Gita is aiming to remove the
sense of “other” from the picture. Service is a broad and open state of mind
rather than a set of activities. It means putting into practice the wisdom
you’ve gained, which serves everyone well. A small part of it might serve to
free the teacher from some menial tasks so they can attend to more sublime
matters. Everyone can wash dishes, but few can inspire life-changing
resolutions in an audience. Therefore we do the guru’s dishes for them.
are the three attitudes to adopt with a guru, one who sees the essence of
things and their basic principles. You first prostrate yourself to the teacher
by realizing she knows more than you do. Your job is to ask questions,
penetrating questions, which milks the wisdom from the guru-cow that otherwise
would remain udderly out of sight. And you do little things for the guru,
relieving her of some of the drudgery of life and freeing her for more quality
time, such as helping people like you.
is the only place that service is expressly mentioned in the Gita, so it is a
bit of a mystery why so many commentators claim it extols selfless service as
the high road to realization. That may come from a dualistic interpretation of
sacrifice, which is often mentioned in the Gita but is not meant to imply
servility in any form. The Gita clearly recommends service here, but a
thoughtful and considered service. Not selfless, but self-full. You should
always offer your help as it’s required—this will teach you flexibility and broaden
your range. If you happen to have a program for your own particularized ends
unfolding, being able to set it aside in an instant teaches freedom in action.
Whatever you resent when this happens is a pointer to where you may be caught.
precept from Christianity that has somehow become associated with the Gita is
selfless service. Christians pray, “Oh Lord, make me an instrument of Thy
will.” Many Gita commentators likewise advocate selfless service as the high
road to dissolving the ego and producing a consequent superstar status. It is a
simplistic formula designed to provide an easy route to unitive action, and
like all such formulas it is much less valuable than everyone would like to
nothing else, deciding to do selfless service is inherently contradictory, as
in “I’m doing selfless service to attain my own enlightenment.” Absurd, really.
There is an awful lot of self in that. Actually, selflessness can be a
diversion from the spiritual search, if not a source of raw egotistical pride.
It is very important for the seeker to be focused on their own issues, and not
be always paying attention to other people’s problems. Breakthroughs and
insights are always to be related to our personal situation, and are not to be
flung in the face of those who we imagine might benefit from the wisdom we have
unearthed. Other people have their own problems to address that are different
than ours. Insights may certainly be shared between friends, but proselytizing
is rude and counterproductive. It is almost invariably the mark of someone who
is excited about an idea that hasn’t been thought all the way through.
in mind that Krishna has just assured us that any path that someone takes with
total dedication and involvement is just fine (IV, 11), what are the problems
here? First of all, when you look outside yourself for direction, your actions
tend to be only mildly dedicated and your involvement in them lukewarm. Doing
somebody else’s bidding is humiliating on some primal level, though it may have
a minor salubrious effect in tempering excessive willfulness. But exercising
your own expertise is what can motivate you to the depths of your being.
attitude of becoming an instrument of the divine will is fraught with peril.
Are we to be like a cello sitting in its case, leaning up against the wall,
until such time as a divine hand takes us up? Unfortunately, the divine will,
whatever it may be, can only operate through our own will or be interpreted to
us by other humans. Otherwise we’ll just be like that dusty cello, waiting
patiently throughout eternity, trying desperately to think of ourselves as
available. If our strings are somehow set in motion, our selflessness puts us
naively at the mercy of others who may have no qualms about exploiting our good
intentions. The “armies of God” careening around the planet at the behest of
some divinely appointed human or other are all the caution we should ever need
in this respect.
we go beyond the cliché to imagine what selfless service would actually look
like, we can easily see its flaws. Primary is the idea that “I” am serving
“somebody else.” This dualistic purview is at the root of many if not all our
problems, and the Gita is striving to do away with dualism, not encourage it.
When there is an other there is bound to be conflict. We go off to serve them,
but when things don’t go well there is frustration, hurt, anger even. The
imaginary walls divvying up unity tend to grow higher and thicker with time.
can’t restrain myself from quoting a letter by Guru Nitya to an American
disciple, from his autobiography:
The Christian notion
of mysticism is an act of surrender to do service to others as an instrument of
God. The favorite examples are Joan of Arc in the battlefield, St. Francis
among the lepers, and St. Teresa organizing charitable institutions. This is
what Bergson calls the “model of the throbbing machine.” The other variety is
what is seen in the models of the meditating Buddha or Sri Ramakrishna or
Ramana Maharshi in states of beatitude. In oriental mysticism, there is no idea
of the “other.” The so-called other person is seen as one’s own Self, so there
is no dualistic sense of duty to do service to oneself or to another. Instead,
they only keep themselves true to their own inner rhythm that flows in harmony
with the universal rhythm.
In a country where for
centuries people have acted because of environmental forces, such as mineral
deposits and consequent gold rushes, no realization makes much sense without
relating it to action. Tales of yogis and seers attaining God-realization,
brought to this country through books and by word of mouth, have fired the
enthusiasm of many people to seek God-realization. This has somehow created in
the mind of most people an idea of a far off realm to which one has to move for
There is no world other
than this, and there is no experience that is removed from one’s earthly life.
However, the idea of worldly responsibility should be changed to an
understanding of the world in terms of the Divine. (Love and Blessings, 358-9)
people dedicate part of their week to feeding the poor or some other type of
community activity. Some are motivated from the depths of their souls, while
others are just copying a good idea so they can put a checkmark next to the
“selfless service” category in their mind’s résumé. The very arbitrariness of
it kills it, and any energy available to resolve hunger problems at their core
is derailed. As usual, a self-critical wisdom sacrifice can separate honest
motivations from the spurious ones.
service is all too often a formula for leaders to enlist well-meaning but
unquestioning followers to their own selfish causes. In a world where mind and
self are pretty much equated, we can substitute the former for the latter and
have it read “mindless service.” That’s precisely what selfless service often
turns out to be: mindless. Throw in the concept of picking one well-worn path
and sticking to it, and you have a recipe for zombiehood. It is crucial to
think for yourself, even while performing “service”!
really intended is for each of us to serve the divine within by developing
ourselves to our maximum potential. We are to become expert in our actions, as
infused with our finest intelligence. Action is not to be cut off from our
personal thought process, it is to be informed by it. This is like an inner god
using us for its instrument, but a god in no way separate from who we are, and
who never gets tired of playing.
Gita is very clear: unitive action should flow seamlessly from a well thought
out program, intelligently conceived, that is in keeping with your dharma or
innate predilections. What selflessness should mean then, if anything, is that
you don’t segregate your self as a separate entity. Your self is enlarged to
the maximum by being open to the Absolute in all its mysterious glory, both
manifest and unmanifest.
known this, Arjuna, you will not give way to delusion thus any more; by this
all beings without exception will be seen by you in the Self and thus in Me.
this, knowing That Alone, is the
whole ball of wax. Once the Absolute is sighted one can never again think of
beings as separate. All are part of the oneness of the Absolute. This is the
essence of selflessness. The Gita will return to this liberating idea again and
beings make up one part of the totality of manifestation, which is called the
atman or the Self. It is a simple extrapolation to see everything as intrinsic
to the Absolute, what sky-blue Krishna endearingly calls “Me” throughout. We
must always remember to avoid the religious trap of thinking of a personlike
being as the Absolute, and keep in mind that it is the Absolute that is
appearing as a person for the time being. We are not worshipping a blue guy
with a flute here, we are turning to the essence of all manifestation, which
includes the blue guy.
coloration or slant one gives to what is encountered has an important impact.
We are in effect not seeing reality, but only a projection of our limited ideas
onto it. This leads to circular interpretations where we see what we expect,
ratifying our own misunderstandings. Over time the cumulative effect is to
isolate us within a detached consciousness. The loss of a sense of unity and
direct interrelation with the world has a devastating impact on the psyche.
with the Absolute restores the awareness of unity and breaks us free of the
vicious circle of delusion to which our mind is prone. This is the total cure
which trumps all partial measures in restoration of our natural harmony.
if you should happen to be among evil-doers the most evil-doing man, by the
very raft of wisdom you will be able to cross over all sin.
verse, along with the related verse IX, 30, is often quite shocking to most
people, who are used to merit-based religious thinking. They ask, What kind of
setup absolves terrible people from their sins? It isn’t fair! Such thinking is
common even within religions that profess absolution from sin.
a little reflection, though, it is clear that an idea such as this is necessary
to an Absolute that is attained, not through accumulated merit, but only via
proper understanding. Since everyone is more or less flawed, absolution has to
be available to all beings without exception. Evil actions may diminish the
possibility of liberating insights, embroiling miscreants in chains of
necessity, but they can never eradicate some degree of possibility for
redemption. Nothing can block our access to truth permanently, because we are
nothing but the Absolute through and through.
True Notebooks, by Mark Saltzman (New
York: Vintage Books, 2004), chronicles his year teaching writing to juvenile
criminal offenders, some of whom could well be candidates for “most evil-doing
man” status. Their writings reveal sensitive, insightful beings beneath their
tough personas, hardened as they are by ugly chains of perverse circumstances
coupled with lack of support during their formative years. This verse is trying
to get the same idea across: no one is beyond hope if they sincerely want to
pull themselves together. And we all require intelligent assistance to succeed.
everyone has moments in their life when they despair, feeling that they are
worthless wretches with no hope of redemption. At those times we need precisely
the kind of encouragement Krishna is offering to Arjuna, to know that the
Absolute accepts all beings equally and utterly. Even us.
we adopt Krishna’s viewpoint, we will also extend potential forgiveness to
everyone, no matter how venal. Our lives can become a helping hand to all,
instead of a roadblock that adds to peoples’ misery by heaping on the
punishments while taking away their opportunities for improvement. Sad to say,
in many countries this drastically negative approach is the norm.
ignorance, the cause of disasters great and small, should never be considered a
permanent condition. Though temporary, it can be terrible and profound, and we
all have heard of some of the horrific things humans do, so I’m not going to
list them. It is almost inconceivable the depths of depravity we may fall into.
But history has taught us that under pressure even very “normal” people are
prone to the worst behavior. So our self-righteousness is misplaced, and an important
spiritual step is to own that we can be wrong and even awful, something the ego
is loath to admit. We may not even be aware when we are acting badly, because
our minds are very clever to justify whatever we decide to do.
a matter of fact, pretending that we are among the chosen people while others
are sinners opens the door to a wide spectrum of injustice all by itself.
Instead, we should realize that all humans share a common condition with
differing degrees of seriousness, variously called ignorance, or sin, or
stupidity, or meanness. The antidote to all of it, according to the Gita, is
wisdom. No magic wand or divine intervention is required.
offer a meditation to throw some additional light on this mystery. Imagine you
are gazing into a beautiful pond in a remote mountain wilderness. Fierce winds
are agitating the surface so much that no reflection at all is visible. As you
sit the winds begin to die down. At first vague shapes appear, fuzzy and
distorted, but they become clearer as the winds abate. When the wind is reduced
to gentle puffs you can begin to see a breathtaking scene reflected in the
water. Despite the ripples, you can make out the general picture of snow-capped
mountains, meadows and trees. Just at the moment the pond becomes perfectly
still, the image leaps into crystal clear focus, and all the details can be
discerned. However, it’s still upside down because it is just a reflection,
albeit a very fascinating one.
humans without exception are enchanted by such a lake, because their
consciousness is a reflecting pool for the world, shifting from clear to cloudy
to completely obscured and back again, depending on the winds.
any time the true scene could be admired by merely raising our gaze above the
pond and looking directly at it. The degree of agitation of the surface of the
lake does not impede our looking in any way; in fact, in some respects we are
more inclined to look up when there is no reflection than when there is an
enchantingly clear one. But for some reason we have come to believe that only
the reflection is real, and so it’s the only legitimate place for us to direct
opaque surface represents the state of tamas, sometimes associated with evil,
the agitated image represents rajas, active and distorted, and the clear
reflection is sattva, the most true to life. Many religious people become so
infatuated with being good, with clarifying their pond by remaining as still as
possible, that they seldom raise their eyes to the breathtaking vista before
them, but narcissistically admire their own beautiful reflection as the epitome
of holiness. In any case this is a universal condition: the way we humans, from
the best of us to the worst of us, are constructed.
mysterious impetus to turn away and lift our eyes to liberation, to “seek the
Havens,” cannot be predicted. It comes uniquely to each person, by an act of
grace or luck. Until then, even liberation is only an image. Therefore “holier
than thou” attitudes are unjustified, if not downright damaging. They are
stumbling blocks on the way to universal wisdom.
as fire when kindled reduces to ashes the fuel, likewise the fire of wisdom
reduces all works to ashes.
shocking concept follows close on the heels of the previous. But this one only sounds shocking. It doesn’t mean that
all our best efforts become meaningless if we understand them from an
enlightened perspective. The idea is that by closely examining
actions—practicing the wisdom sacrifice—they are deprived of their ability to
bind us. We see that we are not in fact the agent of action, and we see that we
are not bound to act according to a rigid program. Thus the monumental force of
necessary action is dissipated, to be replaced by fluidity and flexibility.
Potential energy is converted to kinetic energy. This is likened in the
Upanishads to the heat bound up in a log of wood being released as it oxidizes
have a saying in America that someone is making a mountain out of a molehill,
meaning that a person’s emotional reaction to mundane events causes them to
seem like huge affronts. Wisdom accomplishes the reverse of this by reducing a
large pile of debris to a handful of ash. By taking a dispassionate view of the
situation you immediately subtract the emotional coloration that is magnifying
it. Once it is manageably sized, it is fairly easy to see it for what it is.
Grasping the situation without exaggeration allows it to be categorized with
many other incidents you have already experienced, and also to recall advice
about them you have gotten in the past. Now the problem is much more life
sized. Wisdom can further reduce it by showing you the other side of the coin,
which will make sense to you also. This is as far as you need to go in most
cases, and isn’t really all that difficult. More reduction is possible,
a transcendental perspective, action is like the water or carbon cycles of the
Earth. Water evaporates out of the ocean, drifts as clouds, falls as rain, and
returns to the ocean as rivers. Carbon is split from organic matter by fire,
permeates the atmosphere, and is reabsorbed by plants, and by animals via the
plants. The plants and animals die, and their carbon is sucked up by trees to
produce burnable wood. All that activity to get back to where you started! A
philosopher can examine action in the same manner, and strip it down to its
essence. This doesn’t mean you don’t have to do anything; that would be an
unwarranted conclusion. It just means that action is a zero sum game. In playing
the game we go from nothing to something and back to nothing, over and over
can sometimes be philosophers too. A girl we know was being coaxed by her
parents to climb a mountain with them. She refused, protesting, “You’re going
to go all the way up to the top, look around, and then come back to this very
spot. I’m here already!”
would be static if we didn’t act, obviously, but it can be a lot more fun when
the heavy, extraneous factors are removed. The girl’s laziness, though perhaps cute
in a child, is not the same as wisdom. We learn new things and see wonderful
sights as we climb the mountain and make our way back to camp, but it’s more
pleasant if we travel light.
is nothing indeed here so purificatory as wisdom, which same the man of
perfection through unitive discipline discovers in himself in due course.
claim here is that attunement with the Absolute naturally stimulates
intelligent thinking. We don’t have to force the issue in any sense. As we
become fascinated with the universe and its counterpart the mind, delighting in
exploring its highways and byways, we will almost effortlessly grow in
understanding. We may even become wise.
process of close examination, of contemplating events from a calm perspective,
is by far the best way to purify the psyche. Mechanical repetitive actions and
rituals, prayers and supplication, even meditation techniques, are inferior to
it. They may eventually provide something of value, but contemplation has an
immediate and intelligent impact on every aspect of life. The Gita is
unequivocal in its recommendation.
fairytales begin with a simpleton or a fool setting out to seek his fortune.
When I first studied with my guru, Nitya, I had no idea why he was teaching
such stringent, seemingly highly academic, kinds of classes. I conceived of
realization as a groovy state of untroubled pleasantness, devoid of
intellectual content, like a good drug high. I asked him what was the point of
studying how the mind worked, and all this academic theorizing. He was probably
fuming inwardly at my youthful insolence, but as always he kept a calm
demeanor. “Some of us find it suitable, some don’t,” was all he would say. “It
keeps life from becoming boring.” Later, he threw me out of his very challenging
class on Nataraja Guru’s An Integrated
Science of the Absolute, upbraiding me as an ignoramus,
almost before I had
begun to grapple with it. It was a highly educational shock to my ego, a
stinging blow to someone with an impressive academic record in my past that I must
have been unwittingly proud of. Along with some other encounters with the guru,
it caused me to seriously doubt everything I had once been sure of about myself.
a turbulent discipleship I remained fascinated by something intriguing about
the man, and his words continued to make eminent sense to me. Oddly enough,
over the course of my life I have come to seem like something of an
intellectual to my peers, because, like my guru, I now delight in decoding
rather than dismissing life’s enigmas. Most of the people I meet are like I was
in the beginning: more interested in ignoring problems than resolving them, not
realizing that turning your back doesn’t make them go away. They have to be
addressed before they can be dispensed with properly.
point of my story is to elucidate the “in due course” phrase in the verse. I
started my quest as a simpleton, but in due course I learned a few things. I
may still be a dummy, but not quite as spectacular a one as before. Thus there
is hope for anyone and everyone: if a classic fool can begin to learn, the door
must be open to all comers. And that’s the claim of verse 36 too, isn’t it?
Even the worst of us can get it together, if we put our minds to it.
an amusing aside, I found out almost 40 years later, from a disciple of
Nataraja Guru, that he used An Integrated Science
of the Absolute to
terrorize new students, to separate the serious ones from the loafers. It’s
about as daunting a work as was ever written, so prospective disciples would
either run away or get down to the business of their philosophical education. Until
then I had had no idea that Nitya was merely employing the same radical
technique on a few of his unsuspecting followers.
man of faith comes to wisdom being intent on That, with the senses subjugated.
On obtaining wisdom he reaches without delay (the state of) supreme peace.
the West we tend to think of a “man of faith” as a “man (or woman) of the
cloth.” The Gita’s meaning is quite different, and does not depend on any outer
trappings in the slightest. Sraddha or faith refers to a focus directed
wholeheartedly to the Absolute, as it is essentially defined in the first
phrase. When one is intent on That, the Absolute, one flowers into wisdom. It
sounds simple, but the subject of faith is complex enough to have a chapter all
its own, number XVII.
is minimized in the Gita, but it is not wholly discarded. Much of traditional
faith is embarrassing to modern humans, because we don’t realize we’ve replaced
the older fairy tales with newer, and in some cases vastly inferior, ones. Ours
may be more scientific, but they remain almost exclusively metaphors and
analogies, like the gods of old. When we mistake our beliefs for reality, we
hold on to them harder than we need to, and that’s when we gradually drift into
the past and become absurd. Because of this, unexamined beliefs are to be ruled
out in contemplative life. And we must be aware that consciously clinging to an
idea is not the same as examining it, though the mistake is routinely made.
being said, some articles of faith can make life both more pleasant and more
productive, as well as peaceful in the transcendental sense. The faith that
things will work out and they are important averts the malaise of anxiety and
hopelessness that is a major impediment for many people. Most critically in
spiritual life, we have to have faith that our efforts will change us for the
better, or why would we bother? This is the type of faith referred to here: a
seeker seeks because they are assured that it will bring them wisdom and
understanding, and they really can’t feel truly peaceful until they have met
the Absolute face to face.
case for subjugating the senses, and in what sense, has been made at length in
the present chapter. Suffice to say that all distractions are to be set aside
to permit unhindered contemplation of the spiritual side of life. The assertion
is made here (as if it were necessary) that the wisdom of merger with the
Absolute produces “without delay” a peace that “passeth all understanding”
(Phil. 4.7). There is no time lapse involved, because wisdom and peace are two
aspects of the same state.
peace is the most exalted state in the Bhagavad Gita, and is undoubtedly worthy
of some explication. Param, supreme,
means beyond or transcendental, among many other shades of meaning. Thus
supreme peace essentially stands for the state of blissful union with the
Absolute, and is not dependent on any rearrangement of actual conditions.
Supreme peace is like an ocean into which all the rivulets of doubt and
currents of uncertainty release their agitation and become calm. The
implications of this are many, and may be left for each seeker to discover on
their own. Rest assured that spiritual peace is a dynamic state that does not
resemble death or ignorance in the slightest. It does not have to annul
agitation in others to remain what it is; rather, it radiates a tonic calmness
to everyone around.
a unitive mentality cause and effect are brought together. That’s why the verse
admits no delay between attaining wisdom and becoming peaceful. One is not
produced by the other; they are essentially the same thing.
man who is unwise and without faith, with the Self held in (the conflict of)
doubt, is destroyed; neither is there this world, nor the world beyond, nor can
there be any happiness for a man (caught) in doubt.
40 poses the opposite case to the previous verse, where faith produced the
wisdom to participate in the highest of human achievements. Here both faith, in
the form of seeking attunement with the Absolute, and wisdom, in the form of
finding it, are lacking, and the result is doubt: uncertainty about the
direction you should be going in. The bottom line is that certitude in respect
to the core of life produces happiness, while doubt, being an indicator of
separation from the core or Self, exemplifies unhappiness.
regarding wisdom and faith, we are likely to think, “Who needs it? What’s the
point?” Because the old myths no longer speak to us, we have become pure
skeptics, with no solid basis on which to stabilize our beliefs. We have few
models of intelligent and grounded humans in our unmoored “marketplace of
ideas.” We idolize those clamoring for and being granted media attention, who,
although talented enough, are pretty much all showmen and hucksters. Charlatans.
Listening to them, even the purportedly religious ones, we have come to accept
that we humans are alone in the world, soulless, mere rational husks running on
an endless treadmill of necessity, with an occasional vacation thrown in if we
are lucky. We have surrendered our sovereignty to invisible forces, either
social or imaginary. Wisdom is an abstraction from long ago and far away that
doesn’t touch our lives at all. This is actually a stupendous tragedy, one that
most definitely destroys lives. Our true nature rebels at such a barren
scenario, but we are bewildered regarding what to do about it.
we are cut off from the inner nourishment provided by the totality of our
being, we are forced to look to the outside world for our spiritual sustenance.
The momentary pleasures that are available there are fleeting as well as
debilitating. We can easily be caught in a vicious cycle of chasing after
mirages and trying to impart meaning to them. So if we are going to be
skeptics, we should nonetheless be looking hard for any kernel of truth hiding
within the hullabaloo.
subject of doubt is a primary thread throughout the Gita, with the end of this
chapter bringing it to center stage. It is doubt that propels Arjuna into his
spiritual search, but this is the first time it is directly addressed by
Krishna. In a downward spiral, our apparent separation from the Absolute is
brought about by doubt, and the doubt is aggravated by our gnawing sense of
separation. Transcending this separateness to return to union with the Absolute
is in a sense the overcoming of doubt. Thus it is a central issue in spiritual
when to doubt and when to believe is the crux of the matter. Very often we
doubt what we should believe and believe what we definitely should doubt. Sri
Aurobindo puts his finger on the essentials of skepticism to clarify the
In the lower knowledge
doubt and scepticism have their temporary uses; in the higher they are
stumbling blocks: for there the whole secret is not the balancing of truth and
error, but a constantly progressing realisation of revealed truth. In
intellectual knowledge there is always a mixture of falsehood or incompleteness
which has to be got rid of by subjecting the truth itself to sceptical inquiry;
but in the higher knowledge falsehood cannot enter and that which intellect
contributes by attaching itself to this or that opinion, cannot be got rid of
by mere questioning, but will fall away of itself by persistence in
realisation. (Essays on the Gita, p. 183)
Gita describes doubters as being not only unhappy but destroyed. The malaise is
rectifiable only if we have not just the desire to correct it, but the courage to
reject inadequate, sugarcoated solutions. Once the ego becomes addicted to
misery and the rejection of happiness on the one hand, or the glib assurances
of panacea peddlers on the other, it becomes a very difficult matter for it to
pull itself out of the mire. Sometimes faith has to start simply as the
unproven hypothesis that life is worth living, and it may require hitting rock
bottom before the negentropic life-urge can rebound to the ascent, to affirm
that life must indeed be worthwhile.
have to combat our strong tendency to feel less anxious in restrictive,
well-defined roles. We feel relief when we fall into a routine that allows us
to drop our guard, but the routine itself is not necessarily the truth we seek.
Yet most people are content simply to stop feeling bad, and spend their lives
trying to block out painful feelings. Our higher potentials as a species are
rarely explored, because we are always going the opposite direction, seeking
surcease of sorrow rather than true nourishment.
our world contains any number of people who are ready and willing to exploit
us, we must exercise great care in remanding ourself to someone’s care, whether
guru or therapist. But once the choice is made, there has to be a wholehearted
enthusiasm for the process; otherwise the ego uses doubt as an insulating
device to safeguard its stagnant self-identity.
world is filled with people who have committed themselves to disastrous belief
systems, but because of a twisted notion of faith or belief they are unable to
break away even when disaster looms. The Gita by no means endorses such a
tragedy. Knowing when to commit and when to release in spiritual affairs is one
of the many fine lines the disciple has to walk, and one that makes a
successful training program an all-too-rare event.
of unitively renounced action, who by wisdom has sundered doubt and come to
full self-possession, cannot be bound by works.
renounced action” sums up the complicated teaching of the third and fourth chapters.
Krishna has done his best to explain how the focal point of the Absolute can be
used to unify action, conferring expertise in place of chronic hesitation and
delayed reactions. This is the essence of yoga. The remainder of the Gita will
show us the sublime heights yoga can take us to if we avail ourselves of it.
“bondage of works” does not refer to the pressure of necessity, which the Gita
recommends we comply with anyway. It means the way actions slow us down, the
way we ponder and doubt and agonize over how to proceed. When we are in a yogic
state of mind, action is exciting and full of spontaneity. We aren’t wondering
what to do and how to do it; we know, and are eagerly carrying out our
programs. Life has become the artistic masterpiece we are continuously engaged
in bringing into existence.
perhaps by a desire to simplify the Gita’s complexity, several commentators
consider selfless service as the Gita’s “way” to realize the Absolute. This is
a far more limited concept than unitively renounced action. Service is indeed
briefly mentioned in verse 34 above, but it is primarily a Buddhist idea (not
that that’s bad in itself): since the self or ego does not exist, just ignore
it and it will go away. Selfless service in that sense means downplaying your
ego and focusing on the needs of those who still think they have a self,
primarily to convince them they don’t have one either. The difference between
Vedanta and Buddhism is just here. The former accepts a divine, or at least
miraculous, Self, and the latter insists there is no Self. Otherwise they have
quite a lot in common. Luckily, realization is realization, no matter what
beliefs are adhered to or the unique ways it is described.
to selfless service as a technique, there are those less ethical than dedicated
Buddhists who benefit greatly from manipulating the good intentions of others,
and the minute you become “selfless” you are at their mercy. One glaring
example is military service, denying your self-interest to serve your nation.
People voluntarily surrender their autonomy for the greater good of their
country, only to find that their steps are being directed by bellicose
pragmatists, sociopaths, or various perverts, right up to religious zealots and
paranoid psychopaths. They are trapped and unfree, even unto death. And yes,
such patriotism has become synonymous with spiritual service for some
religions, particularly of late, but all through history. Even the Gita was
enlisted in the call for selfless service to the Indian Nationalist movement of
the early twentieth century. This is a sordid and inexcusable perversion of a
traditional protection from the abuse of selflessness is for the seeker to
offer it only to a carefully selected teacher. This is certainly commendable,
but in practice it can be difficult to tell a wise seer from a wiseacre. The
tendency is to sign on with the most popular or best appearing candidate. Once
you have abandoned your reasonable doubts, the ego will supply endless
rationalizations to excuse the transgressions of the one you’ve chosen. The
meltdowns of numerous cults and the mental breakdowns of soldiers who have finally
seen through their illusions provide ample testimony to the danger in this.
your selfless self to an invisible, intangible principle is also fraught with
peril, since the imagination can be particularly active in projecting wishful
thinking when there is no one around to expose its underhanded machinations.
The yogi must be careful not to hang any unwarranted projections onto the
perfect neutrality of the Absolute.
am doing selfless service” is a barefaced contradiction. On the other hand,
thinking only of yourself is clearly not a spiritual state. If spirituality
means anything, it is expanding your ego boundary to become more inclusive.
Since everything “out there” is also the Absolute, why not? It’s just that your
self has to be included in the service. It is service to everyone, including
Gita recommends striking a balance in this, as in all things. It is helpful to
have a teacher, and helpful to be awake to your own needs and talents and
develop them rather than discarding them. Oversimplifying the complex issues of
being sentient and mouthing clichés about them can only lead to further problems.
sundering with the sword of Self-knowledge this ignorance-born doubt residing
in the heart, stand firm in the unitive way, and stand up, Arjuna.
concludes the chapter with a call to greatness. He does this with a martial image
that reminds us of the battlefield context in which the instruction is taking
place. There is a certain heroic quality in those with enough intensity of
purpose to overcome their habitual dualism by fixing their attention in unity.
directives to stand firm and stand up underscore this epic element. Dualism can
seep back into consciousness without our realizing it, since it not only
permeates the culture we live in, it’s the brain’s normal mode of operation.
It’s very “seductive” in that sense. It must be watched for and firmly rooted
out whenever it is detected. Moreover, we have to be brave enough to live the
truth we perceive in the face of a society that likely will despise any hint of
it. Freedom is the most subversive force on the planet in respect to social
conventions, because at the back of their minds everyone craves it. When
hostile or alluring forces pen us in and demand we abandon our good sense, we
must stand up like the Statue of Liberty, holding high our flaming torch of
love and compassion.
of the more intriguing paradoxes in spiritual life is that we serve others in
part by standing up for ourselves. If we merely accede to the demands of our
fellows, we give them carte blanche to indulge their egos, selling ourselves
short and opening ourselves to abuse in the bargain. On the other hand, when we
are confident of our legitimate place in the cosmos we can help normalize the
other’s relationship to us, while tending to our needs so no one else has to.
Therefore standing up for ourselves as strong individuals cultivates win-win
situations, while self-abnegation produces double loss.
doubts of the mind are often valuable and should be heeded. Zealots and
demagogues never entertain doubts, and the way they stand firm is the opposite
of spiritual. Here we are being asked to take on the doubt lurking in the
heart, which is another matter entirely. This is self-doubt, which undercuts
our confidence and prevents us from standing up for what we have carefully
determined to be right. It can be viewed as the awareness of our separation
from the Absolute, from the truth of our core.
is inevitably dualistic: should I choose this or that option? Certitude is
unitive. You know what to do and when to do it. Not what you have been told to do, but the best you can
visualize for yourself. An improvising musician doesn’t wonder which note to
hit next, they know, and they get it just right. Otherwise the music doesn’t
sound seamless. A dancer doesn’t have to think where to put her foot down, her
body knows. Unitive activity is like soaring, while dualistic actions range
between stumbling and strolling.
keeping with the “sword of Self-knowledge” analogy, most commentators choose
“sundering” for chittva, because it
is appropriate to sword work. In the fifteenth chapter, Arjuna will be
similarly instructed to sunder any remaining entanglements he has with the
sacred traditions of his society. Chittva also means—more in keeping with the
Gita’s call to nonviolence, though still severe: “destroy, annihilate, efface,”
(MW). When one dispatches duality in favor of unity, it must be evanesced, like
dew in the morning sun, not hacked away at, lest the very process enhance the
dualism. To think, “I am rejecting this and moving to that,” is pure dualism,
and does not accomplish its aim anyway, because it represses important issues
that will resurface later on. It’s even worse to think of overcoming doubt as a
pitched battle, since ferocious anti-doubt can generate more ignorant behavior
than uncertainty ever could. Unitive knowledge knits everything together rather
than splitting it apart. All it does is remove the appearance of reality from
that which has no basis in fact. It has no need to smash what is nonexistent to
“standing up” to the situation is not usually enough. We also have to stand
firm in a unitive vision, because hostile events continually try to knock us
off our ground, and we may have to reclaim it over and over. Only rarely is a
serious problem resolved quickly and completely, so there is real danger of
becoming embroiled in other people’s confusion, if not our own. There has to be
a way to step out of direct conflict and into philosophical detachment and
enlightenment. Arjuna has much to learn yet in that arena, but he has attained
enough wisdom now for Krishna to begin to teach it to him in the next few