forming the background of much of the practice of yoga, meditation as such is
little mentioned in the Gita, mainly in the title here and in three verses:
XII, 12; XIII, 24; and XVIII, 52. It makes a negative appearance in II, 62, as
meditating on objects of sense interest. It is of passing interest that the
word Zen is descended from the Sanskrit word for meditation, dhyanam, and the intense
burst of focus
characteristic of that discipline is implied in the original as well. As
Nataraja Guru puts it, “Yoga is a streak of lightning inside you.”
itself means different things to different people. The subject can perhaps be
generalized as whatever mental activity is directed toward ideal, or vertical,
aspects of life, as opposed to that directed toward horizontal needs and
transactions. As such it is a subtle form of action, and is treated that way in
the Gita. Contemplation is an essential part of meditation, and its outline is
sketched in the middle of this chapter. Guru Nitya clearly delineates
meditation and contemplation in page 368 of his commentary on Narayana Guru’s Darsanamala:
In our own times,
contemplation are used as synonyms: both the terms have lost their precise connotation
and have become vague in meaning. So it has become necessary to revalue and
restate the terms ‘meditation’ and ‘contemplation’. Sequentially, meditation
comes as a prelude to contemplation. The way to know something, as Henri
Bergson puts it, is not by going around it, but by first entering into it and
then being it. Meditation is an active process of applying one’s mind to make a
total ‘imploration’ of the depth of whatever is to be known. The state of
actually being it is what is achieved by contemplation. It is a passive but
Thus, while meditation is taken for granted
specifically designated in the Gita, nearly every verse is a perfect gem for
the meditative process of initial exploration and subsequent imploration. Many
verses present more than one pithy idea, any one of which would bear looking
into more deeply, following the train of thought it inspires to uncover its
more subtle implications. The Gita is like a garden’s worth of seeds. Scanning
the contents is moderately amusing, but planting some of them and encouraging
them to grow into a mature ensemble is truly spectacular.
term atman, the Self, is a major
component of Chapter VI. It refers simultaneously to the individual and the
totality of consciousness that might be called something like God. In the
ultimate analysis of Vedanta there is no difference between the individual soul
and God. Yet for practical purposes they may be distinguished. In English we
differentiate the two poles of atman with a small ‘s’ for the individual and a
capital ‘S’ for the collective, but Sanskrit does not have that ability. In the
sense of this chapter on meditation, our practice is to reunite the self with
the Self in mystical conjunction, in the process discovering that there is no
such thing as otherness.
depending on the results of action, he who does necessary action is a renouncer
and also a contemplative, not he who has (merely) given up the sacrificial
fire, or who (merely) abstains from ritualist (or other) action.
chapter begins by recapitulating the gist of what has been previously taught,
that both thoroughgoing abstinence and simply avoiding opportunities for
beneficial action are contrary to contemplation, rather than being prerequisites
for it, as is often thought. The golden mean of yoga is achieved by the one who
takes care of the requirements of life as they arise, but who is not pulled off
center either by useless reactions or by expectations of specific future
reference to “giving up the sacrificial fire,” has an archaic tone, but the
idea behind it is still relevant to the modern sensibility. When the Gita was composed,
repudiation of Vedic ritualism and the overthrow of caste distinctions were in
full flood. Priest-led ceremonies centering around the fire sacrifice were
being abandoned by the new radicals because they had become tools of oppression
of the middle and lower classes. Although he is supportive of such steps,
Krishna is cautioning that it is not enough to simply discard the old forms.
Truly unconditioned action can not be based solely on rejection of
externalities. Vacating the status quo may remove some of the fetters, but it
still remains for the radical contemplative to dive deep or soar high.
our day repudiation of consensus reality is still a popular attitude, in part
because it gives the appearance of being a well-defined position. Yet rejecting
falsehood is barely half the battle, and the easy half at that. There also has
to be a movement toward a meaningful realignment to give the psyche substance,
and combining both currents in a single stream is a supreme challenge.
up the sacrificial fire,” in modern terms could also be taken to mean “dousing
the spark of personal initiative.” We are confronted throughout our lives by
staunch resistance to our individuality, and most of us eventually capitulate,
abandoning our preferences for someone else’s. When an intrepid individual
learns to “behave” acceptably, they repress their personal aspirations in favor
of doing what they’re told. This is often represented as spiritual, or
certainly religious, and in some respects it brings a great feeling of
satisfaction. You are no longer bucking the headwinds of conformity, you are
being swept along by them. You can let down your guard, and just merge into the
madding crowd. Until we get used to the responsibilities of freedom, they are
stressful, breeding doubt and anxiety, and a well-worn track is much easier to
follow. But for those with a passion to live an excellent life, it is easy to
see that group conformity tends to be destructive, focusing on short-term gains
at the expense of sustainable independence. We need to build our own
sacrificial fire of passion for living a life in tune with the tremendous
abilities inherent in our very being, while not distorting them with willful
desires based on absurdities, as addressed in the next verse.
which people call renunciation—know that to be yoga, O Arjuna; one who has not
given up his willful desires for particularized ends never indeed becomes a
in essence is the union of the individual with the universal. One way to bring
this about is for the individual to relinquish the sense of agency in action.
All the “elusively subtle” instruction of the past three and a half chapters is
meant to guide the seeker to thoroughly yet safely abandon the particularizing
beliefs “I am the doer, “I am the knower,” and “I am the enjoyer.” When this
happens in the correct way, the universal impetus is conjoined with the
individual person, bringing a flood of bliss and a harmonized direction to
is a subtle distinction to note between “giving up sacrificial fire” and
renunciation. We contain a level of personal greed and a level of universal
beneficence, and we must not mistake one for the other. It is essential to
exorcise selfishness from our self-interest. Thus yogis mentally attune with
the entire range of any subject. Instead of limiting themselves to a particular
preference, they open up to the subject as a whole. They are satisfied with the
“chance gains” (IV, 22) that come to them, and avoid the directed actions that
so often throw their world off kilter. Viewing the world as a series of
continuums allows them to embrace the absolute totality and find peace. When
limiting expectations are relinquished, wonderful and unexpected things start
is not insisting on any particular direction here, merely pointing out that if
you want to pursue partial goals such as wealth, power, and fame and so on, you
are automatically outside the sphere of yoga. Yoga means combining prevailing
conditions with their opposites in order to find the median neutral value, and
then adhering to that. For instance, power viewed neutrally reveals the stress
and soul-killing demands of wielding it, along with its negative impact on
other people and the environment. The opposite pole, powerlessness, permits
people to be manipulated by other people and circumstances, thereby forfeiting
their independence. A yogi should artfully occupy the arena in between these
two untenable positions, allowing for the fullest possible freedom combined
with the gentlest impact on the surroundings. Such neutrality is actually more
powerful than either extreme.
the wisdom context, there are many who are drawn to religion and mysticism as
sources of pleasures and wealth that are even more compelling than the ordinary
versions. They desire “powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal man.”
(This is a line from the old 1950s TV series, Superman.) If anything, these siddhis (psychic powers) are more
imaginary and misleading than the regular versions. As an example, levitation
is an ever-popular draw. Lots of folks spend big chunks of time trying to
attain the knack, thinking they’ll be able to do something no one else can, and
so be loved and admired far and wide. But even floating up in the air would get
boring after awhile. Astronauts do it as part of their job. It makes them throw
up a lot. Then after you get used to it, it’s undoubtedly kind of fun but it
doesn’t produce any enlightening insights of its own accord. Leaving earth does
seem to inspire a few people to appreciate how rare and wonderful life is, and
dedicate themselves to waking up, but the floating around isn’t really the
inspiring part. You can get a taste of levitation even on carnival rides, and
no one gets enlightened on those! Krishna doesn’t doubt that you will get some
version of what you wish for, but reminds us that any and all such directed
desires place you outside the domain of yoga. Yoga accesses spiritual insights
directly, not as a byproduct of physical or mental gyrations.
will examine the full spectrum of action in this chapter and sum it up at the
end by recommending that Arjuna become a yogi. Here he starts out by separating
those who are legitimate aspirants for wisdom from those who are merely siddhi
wannabees. Nataraja Guru makes an excellent point about this:
Without some form
relinquishment there is no true yogi. Sankalpa
(will involving personal intentions for particular desired effects) must be
shunned both by the sannyasin and the
yogi. The usual yogi tends to retain too many desires as natural or necessary
and the usual sannyasin tends to live
in a vacuum without any of the natural outlets for his energies. The via media between
the two is again
upheld in this verse.
yoga of a man of self-control who is still an aspirant, is said to have action
as its motive principle; for the same person, when he has ascended to the
unitive state, tranquility is said to be its motive principle.
understanding does not require any program or learning curve in order to bring
it about. It always is. Any
transformation we go through is merely coming to realize this fact.
the early going, a curious paradox baffles all aspirants to unitive wisdom: you
aren’t supposed to have any goal in mind, yet if you don’t have any
particularized desires, any direction, you won’t get anywhere. Words and
thoughts have to be used to transcend words and thoughts. As with an
inoculation, a measure of the disease must be used to effect the cure. There is
a provisional or interim state where ordinary attitudes are bent to
extraordinary aims. Such a paradox has been illustrated in traditional cultures
as using a thorn to remove a thorn lodged in the foot. After you have removed
the thorn with the thorn you throw them both away. The state of tranquility
referred to in this verse is like not having any thorns embedded anywhere.
always want to know What Am I Supposed To Do? There is nothing particularly to
be done, but if the guru doesn’t give them something to do they will go find
someone who will, someone peddling a special technique to achieve levitation or
the precipitation of a new car or something equally tantalizing. The paradox is
that only if they are already fairly enlightened will they be able to accept
the state of neutral tranquility and be content. The typical seeker is
motivated by discontent, just as Arjuna was at the opening of the Gita.
Krishna’s challenge is to interest Arjuna (and the rest of us) in wisdom pure
and simple, unadorned with lurid attractions. Most of us don’t realize how
valuable that is. Jesus put the same idea this way: “Except ye see signs and wonders,
ye will not believe.” (John, 1.48)
to signs and wonders, my own guru ran the Institute for Psychic and Spiritual
Research in New Delhi for a few years in the mid-1960s. A very few—but some—of
the yogis they tested were able to perform feats outside of normal parameters.
And really, only a little way outside. As far as siddhis (powers) go, a lot is
being made of what are essentially fantasies. Yoga is a technique for
harmonizing and concentering the mind, to achieve happiness and wisdom. It is
curious that materialistic adjuncts are treated as being of more value than
happiness itself. Even Paramahansa Yogananada, who turned many of us on to the
Bible quote above, and who extolled a beautiful and loving philosophy of life,
sprinkled his autobiography with all sorts of putative signs and wonders of
dubious veracity. As a teenager I was almost sexually aroused by those stories.
But Jesus made his comment as a criticism, not as a recommendation.
most of us miss every minute of our lives is the miracle of life itself. While
longing for an unusual talent to make others admire us, we ignore the wonders
and signs of everything taking place in our vicinity. Existence is the greatest
miracle of all. Our wisdom journey is to arrive right here, in our heart
center, where our relationship with what exists is direct and unclouded. Almost
the first thing Krishna taught Arjuna was to stop fantasizing about what might
have been and start digging into what actually exists: “What is unreal cannot
have being, and non-being cannot be real; the conclusion in regard to both
these has been known to philosophers.” (II, 16). Consciousness expanding into
the realms of the unconscious is the real story of spiritual growth within
creation. We are not yet so far advanced above worms that we should rest on our
could anyone want more than this magnificent universe, with a lease of life and
a consciousness to take it all in? We reveal our own ignorance when we trample
the pearls of transcendent beauty into the mud of our truncated visions.
matter how many of our fellow fools subscribe to certain beliefs, there are no
guarantees. Breaking our brains trying to make the unreal real is a waste of
time. Instead we should use our wits to appreciate every moment of our life in
this particular universe, to vivify everything, to begin to express our full
potential, and in the process share our love with all the other sparks of the
Absolute that fill the air around us.
however, one finds attachment neither in the objects of the senses nor in
actions—such a man, who has renounced all willful desires for particularized
ends, is said to be one who has ascended to yoga.
last of the four verses reviewing the essentials resolves the duality of motion
versus tranquility of the previous verse, to arrive at the yogic state. It
echoes verse IV, 18: “One 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.” The substitution of tranquility for
inaction here is particularly fitting, as it evades the paradoxical
intentionality of trying to remain inactive. Synthesizing these seemingly
absolutely contradictory principles is an incomparable achievement that this
chapter aims to make progress on. Dhyana, contemplation, is grounded in a
unitive attitude that will be increasingly carefully delineated as we proceed.
The Isa Upanishad
same mystery of dialectical synthesis from the slightly different angle of
knowledge and non-knowledge. Verses 9 and 11 read:
Those who worship
into blinding darkness. Those who are delighted in knowledge itself, they enter
into still greater darkness, as it were.
He who knows these
and ignorance—together, such a person, having overcome death with ignorance,
enjoys immortality with knowledge.
for wisdom who are attached to the senses and their consequent actions and
reactions are referred to as ignorant. Yoga is not about coming up with neat
explanations, but leaping beyond ordinary understanding, and the Gita is very
clear that this is not the result of either cumulative accomplishments or mere
negation. But it is often the case that religious zealots suppress their senses
and severely channel their activity, and then imagine that they have achieved a
spiritual state. Their self-satisfaction with what they believe prevents them
from seeing beyond their own narrow and repressed condition, making it extremely
unlikely that they will break out of it. This is why knowledge entails greater
darkness than ignorance: an ignorant person may still be open to improving their
awareness. Once you believe you know it all, your mind becomes closed to any
input that doesn’t square with your beliefs.
are fundamentalists of materialism equal to the fundamentalists of religion,
who throw the baby of unknown possibilities out with the bathwater of
superstitious nonsense. Notwithstanding that the guru principle of the universe
is constantly offering fresh fragrances to appreciate, with new insights routinely
producing expanded comprehension, the attitude that you are secure in your
conceits erects an iron curtain which excludes much if not all the serendipity
that is continuously being presented to you. This is apparently the normal
human condition we hope to rise above in any search for truth.
key point here is that willful desires have the same impact on the psyche
whether they are positive or negative. Intentional restraint is therefore not
really different from indulgence. A spiritual path that places morality as its
central focus is actually merely glorifying socialization.
when the limitations of both these perspectives are well understood can a
person sit quietly in a state of peaceful openness conducive to fruitful
meditation. Continuing the practice of “borrowing” Nataraja Guru’s best lines:
Ascent in yoga
is not so much
something culminating in a supreme effort as might be suggested in other books,
but in the Gita, which is a yoga shastra (a
scientific textbook on unitive discipline), it consists rather in neutralizing
opposing tendencies, where no effort at all is involved even in its last
stages. Intentions, actions and the attractions of sense objects have merely to
be discarded for a man to attain the highest in yoga as understood here.
the Self the Self must be upheld; the Self should not be let down; the Self
indeed is its own dear relative; the Self indeed is the enemy of the Self.
section could just as easily have small ‘s’ self throughout, where Nataraja
Guru has used capitals. Both versions of self and Self are implied in the term
atman, since they are simultaneously the same and different. The former refers
to the individual and the latter the collective whole, which is equated with
the Absolute. In essence the self is the Absolute. That paradox forms the basis
of a rich mine of contemplative speculation. This verse and the next present
the paradox in an exemplary way, with the unitive Absolute interacting with
itself as if it were made up of parts. It works equally well if treated as
straightforward psychological advice.
VI has several seemingly “secret” instructions on how to meditate—secret
because they are not obvious and require careful examination, not that they are
prohibited or reserved for a select few. The Gita’s view of meditation is an
open and dynamic one, with only the broadest practices encouraged. Verses 5 and
6 present the first one.
key instruction here is to visualize everything you encounter as yet another
aspect of the Absolute, of your Self. The Buddha is supposed to have said that
everyone you meet in this life was in a past life a dear mother, father,
brother, sister or child of yours. If you treat everyone and everything with
that kind of familial or parental love, the richness of the world opens up to
you. The same point is here stated in a more unitive form: “the Self is its own
dear relative.” In the spirit of yoga dialectics we are reminded that the Self
is also its own worst enemy at times, and not only when we accidentally get
ourselves into hot water. If we hate parts of the world we are only hating
ourself—or our former father, daughter, son, etc., and that can wither the
world and make us sick. It is definitely a case of loss of love or loss of
could offer many corollaries, though it is a good exercise for each person to
independently try to imagine some of them. One we might mention is that how we
treat the world is how we will experience the world. Our love and good will (or
hate and ill will) don’t just come back to impact us later, it is what we
experience now. Clearly, though we may be helpless to effect large-scale events
in the world, we have a significant effect on our immediate neighborhood. This
can be contemplatively imagined, but it can also be directly experienced in
practical matters. Our perception of the world changes dramatically when
suspicion, hatred and fear are replaced with loving kindness.
most practical way to read this verse is in relating to one’s inner voice. All
of us have an “on scene narrator” sitting in our minds and providing a running
commentary on life and our relation to it. Very often we have learned to hold a
negative slant on our place in the picture, and this voice is the jail keeper
that keeps our spirits in check. We go around telling ourselves “no” or
criticizing ourselves after we transgress some internalized rule. A blusterous
few have developed positive defense systems that resemble a blowfish: they puff
themselves up so as to seem much bigger than they actually are. This mechanism
masks a self-image that is shrunken and frighteningly weak.
way, the self is being distorted by the self itself. It has become its own
greatest enemy, magnifying the harmful impact of events. Modern psychologists
know that we learn to take on the role of self-curtailment as we grow up. We
internalize the external training we receive as children. A “normal” person no
longer needs a policeman or a pastor to tell them what to do—they have an
internalized one in their head, judging and grading everything that happens.
This would be fine if the running commentary was accurate and positive, but it
is almost invariably seriously flawed. And no matter how good the original
template, new circumstances demand new and fresh eyes. Templates are too
inflexible to serve us well in the long run. At the very least they should be
what the Gita is recommending here is that when events send you reeling,
instead of running yourself down or becoming furious with some bystander, you
should support yourself with kind and understanding words from your inner
voice. This is a technique that can be easily learned. Watch how you carry on
after you are stung by a chance remark or accidental occurrence. When you begin
to criticize yourself and magnify what happened, spending lots of time on it
and making yourself depressed, switch over instead to a consoling voice, assess
the situation clearly, tie it up with a bow and drop it in the nearest garbage
can. Then forget about it. If your grievance needs to be redressed, you can now
take calmly considered steps to respond appropriately. In this way the self has
become your greatest helpmate, like a supporting friend or lover.
you deal with it, if you can examine the claims of the inner voice
dispassionately, you will see they are often false, based on old assumptions
that are no longer valid. Let them go. Replace them with something better.
Self is dear to one (possessed) of Self, by whom even the Self by the Self has
been won; for one not (possessed) of Self, the Self would be in conflict with
the very Self, as if an enemy.
we know that our true nature is the Absolute itself, ineffable love floods the
system, but the loss of this awareness is the source of endless conflict and
the understanding that the universe is unitive and not dual—in other words that
God and man are not somehow separate—is treated with hostility in many
religions. Admittedly it is counterintuitive and undermines the authority of
those who make their living from interpreting scripture, but these are not
adequate reasons to discard truth.
religions begin in freedom from vested authority by recognizing this inner
unity, but over time become corrupted by those who manage to wheedle their way
back into power by denying the connection. The Gita mentions the perennial need
to renew the spirit of unity in IV, 8.
his autobiography, Carl Jung reminds us that “according to the ancient
Christian view self-knowledge is the road to knowledge of God.” (Memories, Dreams,
Reflections, p. 325.)
This is especially striking because the current hyper-egocentric version of
Christianity claims that focusing on one’s self is diabolical, that one must
deny one’s self and cast oneself at the mercy of a grim and pitiless god.
Moreover, practices like yoga, far from reaffirming your essential connection
with God, allow terrible demons to enter your being, because by stilling the
mind you open yourself up to Satan’s ministrations. The only hope is to
surrender yourself to a remote God, preferably via his self-anointed
moneychangers on earth.
this view is ever more popularly held in the oddly misnamed Age of Reason.
There is a widespread belief that evil is lurking in the invisible realms, just
waiting for its chance to steal your soul. This may well be mostly a huckster
technique to keep the faithful in line, but there is a more important factor
for the seeker to consider. Surrendering yourself to what you imagine to be
God—usually as sketchily presented by someone else—is precisely how a person
gets led astray to wander in the corridors of confusion and dissociation. You
are relating only to an image instead of seeking and finding the actual divine
following teachings like the Gita’s and holding firm to neutrality, well
grounded in your own hard-won certitude, you can easily resist any forces that
aim to use you for their own purposes. Most or all of such forces are in plain
sight, not hidden, so there’s no need to spend time imagining imaginary
beasties. From this perspective, the exhortations of Christians or other
religious types to avoid the self because it is somehow diabolical are the real
attempts to steal your soul. To stop being yourself is the only real loss
possible. Once you give up your grounding in good sense you are an easy mark.
Zen saying echoes the dialectic here: If you wish to see the truth, you must
give up holding opinions for or against anything. Zen masters expect you to
already know that upon examination virtually all beliefs turn out to be unfounded
speaks of the fear of the unknown as part of the myth-making side of humans,
through which the unconscious is brought into awareness. He counsels a
dialectic approach to the upwelling of material from the unconscious: “Cut off
the intermediary world of mythic imagination, and the mind falls prey to
doctrinaire rigidities. On the other hand, too much traffic with these germs of
myth is dangerous for weak and suggestible minds, for they are led to mistake
vague intimations for substantial knowledge, and to hypostatize mere
phantasms.” (MDR, p. 316) Plenty of both sides are out there: we see both the
rigidity of those self-described scientists and true believers who wish to
shrink reality to “dead” matter, and the fantastic wishful thinking of those
who sense the wasteland of that attitude but are uncertain of what could
one of conquered Self, who rests in peace, the Supreme is in a state of neutral
balance in heat-cold, happiness-suffering, honor-disgrace.
result of taking Krishna’s suggestions in the preceding couple of verses is to
allow your natural balance to reassert itself. When you speak kindly to yourself
and stop holding onto trivial events like a drowning man clutching at straws,
you are not tossed here and there, up and down, by events, and you can become calm
and steadfast. This is the attainment that allows you to finally begin your
real life, which previously had been obscured by a shadowy existence of
reactivity and conditioning. Your dharma will naturally emerge as the junk is
by this stage the middle way between extremes hasn’t become “a consummation
devoutly to be wished,” then this commentary has failed utterly. Yet I suppose
we should examine each of the pairs given here in turn.
and cold are usually taken literally as physical sensations, but the Gita is
seldom so trivial. This is not about attaining room temperature in your mind.
A/C specialists are not perforce the yogis of today. Heat-cold is a poetic way
of saying like-dislike or attraction-repulsion or even love-hate. When we are
ardently fond of something we are “hot” for it, and when we turn our back on it
we coldly reject it. Each of these attitudes represents a polarized extreme. A
yogi learns to be open to whatever comes along. Everything is loved and admired
in its turn, but nothing is clung to or lusted after. Nor is it despised out of
hand. Knowing that justice permeates this innately reciprocal universe,
everything will arrive at its just desserts without any additional
demonstration of personal ratification or opprobrium. Need it be added that the
neutral attitude allows for a much greater appreciation of life than being
thermally attached to one’s own opinion?
very likely that we have all known people who are really high one day and
really down the next, who are totally caught up in their experience of either
happiness or suffering. Nowadays they are thought to have chemical imbalances
and are treated with medicines. Unfortunately the even-mindedness achieved by
such techniques is all too often the deathlike neutrality of psychic numbness.
In any case, such remedies have not been available for the major portion of
history, and they should be avoided if at all possible. They may mask symptoms,
but they don’t cure the problem.
one but a zombie escapes being battered by the vagaries of existence, and it is
not a terrible disease to react strongly to either pain or pleasure. It is
normal. But as we grow up we learn to exaggerate our feelings, first as a kind
of game and later as an unconscious compulsion. If the seeker of balance
refuses to magnify either the ups or the downs of life with misguided enthusiasms
or displeasures, equal-mindedness can be gradually achieved. It is another
widespread but false belief that the joy of life comes from exaggerating the
extremes. Extremes are intense, it cannot be denied, but the Gita and many
other philosophies recommend the more sublime and lasting intensity of the
already dealt with honor and disgrace extensively in Chapter II. It is a
contemplative art form to progress from needing external assurance to having
self-respect. Learning to love yourself unconditionally is a necessary
prerequisite for wisdom acquisition. Clinging to honor or rejection from outside
sources merely postpones the date of reckoning with your own sense of self.
Because we want very much to be loved, and strive hard to be lovable, we are
easily beguiled by praises. At other times, false accusations resonate with our
own degraded sense of self-respect, and we allow ourselves to be brought down
by them. In both situations we are drawn out of our grounding in the truth of
who we are by external influences.
is especially artistic to be able to honor yourself when those around you
despise you for who or what they think you are. Minorities in every
context—racial, sexual, religious and all the rest—have had to struggle to
maintain their dignity in the face of persecutions, ranging from mere contempt
to outright genocide. There is nothing simple about dealing with disgrace, be
it earned or unearned. The least we can do is stop persecuting people for being
different than ourselves. Knowing that everyone is doing the best they can with
what they’ve been given, and that they too are filled with the Absolute to the
very tips of their fingers, we should ever be prepared to help, not hinder, our
is hard enough without exacerbating other people’s problems. Overcoming
obstacles to a normalized sense of self may be said to be a major theme of the
spiritual quest, and the entire Gita is a textbook on the subject. Everyone has
some kind of opposition to overcome in their life. The Gita does not compound
anyone’s existing problems by setting up artificial barriers of the saved and
the damned, the “okay” and the “not okay.” More on this all-inclusive attitude
lies just ahead.
yogi whose Self is satisfied by (synthetic) wisdom and (analytic) knowledge,
established in unchanging immobility, who has gained full control over
sense-attachments, is said to be unified—one to whom a lump of earth, a stone,
and gold are the same.
eighth verse offers a beautiful paean to equality, no matter how you take those
three mineral symbols. They can mean rich, poor and middling; beautiful, ugly
and plain; attractive, repulsive and indifferent; or any other threefold discrepancy
that ordinary people vaunt their prejudices over. The message is crystal clear:
a yogi doesn’t play those games. The sameness the yogi is convinced of is that
all are equally dear.
Guru’s parenthetical adjectives denote the difference between knowledge and
wisdom. Analysis breaks down whole systems into their component parts, while
synthesis knits them back together. The two go together as the pulse of life:
horizontal knowledge and vertical wisdom interweave with one another,
symbolized by the cross or the Cartesian coordinates. Further, knowledge
relates to the identification of things while wisdom gives them meaning. One
without the other is patently absurd, if not tragically delusional.
unchanging immobility mentioned here does not mean being frozen in one
position, afraid to let go, it refers to the neutral balance and the resting in
peace of the previous verse. It’s just that you don’t ride the ups and downs.
They happen, but you are unshaken and unstirred. It is in fact the most dynamic
state possible, because all the energy stays at home instead of flying off into
the Great Beyond. Lao Tzu put it this way:
In the pursuit of learning, every day something is acquired.
In the pursuit of Tao, every day something is dropped.
Less and less is done
Until non-action is achieved.
When nothing is done, nothing is left undone.
The world is ruled by letting things take their course.
It cannot be ruled by interfering.
(Tao Te Ching,
chapter 48, trans.
sameness perceived by the meditator here is not exactly the same as the sameness
mentioned in V, 18. There the different grades to be unified were akin to the varnas
or castes. Here, the three solids
represent the gunas, the modalities of nature, in the order of tamas, rajas and
sattva. A lump of earth is as basic or tamasic as you can get. It is even
possible that the author was thinking of night soil. Stones can be used to
build roads, homes and temples, and construction is rajasic. And of course
sattvic gold is ever symbolic of purity and the highest possible value.
attitude of the wise seer is that the gunas do comprise the world, but the
ultimate reality is something even beyond that. Earth, stone and gold all have
their uses and gradable values, but wisdom simultaneously includes and
transcends them all. We don’t lust after gold and reject earth and stones, we
honor the rightful place of all of them in the scheme of things.
Krishna’s advice in II, 45, a verse with a close kinship to this one: “The
Vedas treat of matters related to the three gunas; you should be free from
these three modalities, Arjuna, free from (relative) pairs of opposites,
established ever in pure being, without alternately striving and resting,
(unitively) Self-possessed.” The idea is that when we are stabilized in a
unitive state of mind we will not be led astray by the relative merits of the gunas,
even as we observe their presence in us. This is particularly important to
remember when we come to the last two chapters, where a number of categories
are analyzed in terms of the gunas. There the Gita is coming back to a very
practical focus in its teaching. When we leave our sitting-still meditation and
seek applications for what we’ve learned, as we surely must, discriminating
between sattva, rajas and tamas has significant relevance. Here in meditation
it does not.
in trying to avoid discrimination there is a tendency to treat the gold as if
it was a lump of earth, instead of the other way around. It is easier for us to
demean things than to exalt them, to raise them higher in our estimation. Democracy
as it is all too often practiced aims at the lowest common denominator, where
it could just as easily uphold shining ideals of perfectibility. Sadly, it
stands to reason that mutual degradation would be our default tendency, after
having our spirits bashed into submission by society. We feel it’s fair to
believe we’re all sinners, but it’s unfair to be free and easy. This of course
is a classic self-fulfilling prophecy.
Guru’s interpretation of this verse is that it depicts three stages of
spiritual evolution. The clod of dirt is unformed, symbolic of the raw novice.
Yet it is a yogic novice, one “who has gathered his thoughts into a certain
compact unity,” as the Guru puts it. A rock indicates the stability of the
well-founded philosopher, and gold implies the transformation of the
alchemists, that is, base material changed into something transcendent. Viewed
in this way, the verse would be cautioning us not to pay attention to rating
our level of spiritual progress, as is done in many religions and occult
associations. Having a fixed idea of where you stand in some hierarchy is
definitely dualistic and a limiting factor in following your finest instincts.
between dear well-wishers, friends, enemies, those indifferent, those in-between,
haters, relations, and also as between good people and sinners, he who can
maintain an equal attitude, excels.
here is a place for practice! There is nothing symbolic about this verse.
Interactions with everyone around jostle the psyche, pulling us out of our
burgeoning equanimity. Personal slurs sting, and drive us to retreat and build
walls around our inner self. Compliments likewise can stimulate exaggerated
positive feelings. Either way, the neutral balance we are aiming for is disturbed.
we are grounded in the oceanic mind, the comments of others can have no
significant effect. When this is not yet the case, we can practice yoga by
silently counterbalancing the input with a larger perspective. Add the
opposite, and the sum is zero, a dynamic neutrality. If you are complimented,
recall a situation where you failed to rise to the occasion. If insulted, bring
to mind times when you were kind and helpful. Slowly, over time, your mind will
steady itself and become more independent of the opinions of others.
bottom line is that no one knows very much about any situation. We judge mainly
on superficial appearances, and based on our own prejudices. Therefore the
advice we give is inadequate. When examined dispassionately, it is much more
relevant to us than to the person we are bestowing it upon. We should always
remember the world is a somewhat distorted mirror in which we are seeing ourselves.
same is true for other people as well. They judge us on fleeting impressions,
and criticize or praise us based mainly on ignorance. We can learn from them,
but we should take what they say with several grains of salt. It’s much easier
to stay centered that way. Nor do we have to block their advice out of some
misplaced gambit of self-defense, because our grounding makes us confident.
wander out of our center by being attracted to pleasure and avoiding pain, in
trying to be good and not bad, right and not wrong. If we had enough faith in
ourselves such posturing would be irrelevant, but a seemingly hostile world
demands we pledge allegiance to such external idols. In the process we may gain
the whole world, but lose our souls. (It’s lucky that we are our soul, and so can only lose it in our imagination, else we’d
be in serious trouble.)
balanced attitude recommended here is predicated on not holding harsh
judgments. If you are addicted to ideas like sin you will see it everywhere,
and it will always shake you up. The Gita is teaching a higher form of
reasoning that transcends or unites all pairs of opposites. That’s why it
counsels that good isn’t any more helpful than evil in knowing the Self.
yogi should constantly gather his own Self unitively, established in a place
where he can be by himself, alone, with relational mind and Self under control,
without expectations and without possessive intentions.
whole technique of meditation according to Krishna is spelled out from verses
10 through 14, giving the chapter its name. Here we have as succinct a
definition of meditation as you’ll find anywhere: just sit somewhere quietly
and gather your many parts into one whole. Of course, the whole is much more
than the sum of its parts. We know “the many” very well; we just have to add
awareness of the mysterious “one” to transform our knowledge into wisdom. Unity
is the essence of meditation.
of these ideas have been introduced earlier, but aloneness has not. To explore
the depths of consciousness in meditation we have to remain undisturbed for a
stretch of time. Interruptions by other people, even more than those by our own
intrusive thoughts, automatically pull us out of the requisite centered state
of mind. In a noisy or chaotic environment, meditation degenerates into a
resistance to external stimuli, making neutrality nearly impossible. So we need
to find a quiet, peaceful place to practice. After unity is established,
however, the yogi can cope with any situation without becoming unbalanced.
Meditation then becomes a fulltime practice, because the true aloneness
(all-oneness) of the Absolute has been established as a continuous presence
beyond any doubt.
phrase “without expectations,” in addition to its overarching importance in the
Gita in general, means not thinking of future gains from the meditation
practice. Meditation is all too often made into a goal-oriented program as an
incentive to keeping up the effort. But meditation should never have to depend
on artificial stimuli—the desire to meditate should come naturally from the
yogi’s grasp of its importance to their sanity and happiness. Goals, no matter
how beautifully imagined, are a distraction to equal-mindedness, and have a
tendency to feed the ego. Proper meditation is all about being here and now.
After you get up from your quiet seat you can plan your plans and hope your
hopes, but they must be set aside for the duration or it isn’t meditation at
Aparigraha, non-possessiveness, makes
another appearance after its detailed discussion under IV, 21. Nataraja Guru
says of it here, that non-possessiveness “releases the yogi from the tension of
thinking of getting something, which is a natural disposition commonly found in
man. When the mind is thus released from horizontal affiliations, the ascent in
yoga becomes facilitated.” In case you’re skipping around and didn’t read the
earlier material, this isn’t about giving up possessions as such, it’s about
letting go of the desire to accumulate things, to make them “mine,” which can
easily obsess the mind. Non-possessiveness includes relinquishing at least the
horizontal aspects of goal-orientation, and thus is closely related to
meditating without expectations.
are lots and lots of programs that rope in practitioners with ludicrous claims
of all sorts, of grandiose material, mental or spiritual accomplishments. For the
most part they are harmless, though embarrassing, trading on people’s
weaknesses and insecurities. Even in the Gita’s time it must have been normal
to see people flocking to the charlatans, while the real rishis sat quietly by
themselves, ignored by all but a lucky few. We are so easily lured by lurid
claims! It is very important to reduce our hypothetical incentives to the
minimum, so we can spend our time on things that are truly meaningful.
Developing a direct relationship with the Absolute is the only effort that has
a lasting value.
presents a nice capsule summary of meditation on page 198 of his commentary:
Only the single-visioned
Real. Spiritual life is not prayer or petition. It is profound devoutness,
silent meditation, the opening of the consciousness to the innermost depths of
the soul, which connect the individual self directly with the Divine Principle.
Those who learn this art do not require any external assistance, any belief in
dogma or participation in ritual. They acquire the creative vision since they
combine absorption with detachment. They act in the world, but the passionless
tranquility of the spirit remains undisturbed.
11 & 12) Having established firmly in
a clean place a
seat for himself, one neither too high or too low, and covered respectively
with cloth, skin and grass,
there having made the mind one-pointed, and
mind and sense-functions subdued, (duly) taking his place on his seat, let him
unitively engage in yoga for transparent Self-consciousness.
verses are routinely taken literally, which is fine as far as it goes. But any
sincere reader of this commentary should by now anticipate that they are also
metaphorical, instructing the yogi to compress all their previous learning into
a seemingly simple stable state. It is a gesture in which the churning
multiplicity of ideas already transmitted by Krishna is made quietly unitive.
is nothing wishy-washy about yogic meditation, therefore the yogi brings a well-established
firm intention to the practice. The clearly delineated intent is to attain
“transparent Self-consciousness,” meaning to attend to the Absolute without
adding any distortion based on ideology or self-indulgence. “Establishing a
clean place,” means shedding all the accumulated garbage of daily life to allow
for maximum openness.
a place even literally clean is a practice requiring firm intention as well,
since the world seems to favor the accumulation of dirt and insects over the
artificial cleanliness humans prefer. Whatever catches and diverts your
attention is “dirt,” including on the physical level. Part of one’s meditation
practice is to firmly beat back the tide of sloppiness or dissolution with the integrative
energy of will power.
“seat” mentioned twice is the asana, popularly used to refer to physical
postures. In hatha yoga, certain callisthenic exercises are used to calm the
body in preparation for meditation, although in modern usage they have come to
be seen as an end in themselves. Where once the body was considered merely a
vehicle in which the mind and spirit rode through the world, the modern view is
that the mind is an accidental evolute of the body, and spirit is an imaginary conception
of the mind. Whatever their exact relationship, the essence of the ancient
worldview is that the mind and its supporting body are evolutes of spirit. Therefore
the posture or asana in question is not a physical one, it is a mental state of
alertness, openness and enthusiasm. It usually takes a reasonably strenuous
program to achieve a suitable mental state for meditation.
addition to a healthy mental asana, a physical asana should be adopted which
permits the yogi to sit without the body intruding into the meditation or
interrupting the careful listening to the words of the guru. Those of us who
have sat through a long disquisition, no matter how fascinating, are familiar
with the many distractions the body can provide. You move to relieve a tired
muscle and realize with chagrin that you’ve missed a sentence and broken your
train of thought. By the end of the talk you may be attending to the body’s
complaints full time and barely hearing the guru at all. It’s the same in solo meditation.
Once you find yourself paying undue attention to the body the meditation is
seat neither too high nor too low is yet another example of yogic dialectics,
and refers to a state of mind more than the proper height of any actual seat
cushion. The Gita is not pointing out minor details of meditation practicalities,
but guiding the aspirant to a balanced orientation at every level. The meaning
is that if you think of yourself as a great yogi, or alternatively if you think
of yourself as unworthy of greatness, or an interloper, such thoughts are
nothing more than impediments to a steady state of mind. Stop judging and
rating yourself, and simply do your best to attune to your inner potential.
Throw off self-assessment whenever it rears its ugly head, and you will
naturally be sitting at the right height.
goes to Nataraja Guru and Guru Nitya for shedding light on the mysterious
reference to cloth, skin and grass here. Cloth, being simple, unpretentious and
durable, is favored by renunciates, including Jain and Buddhist monks alongside
traditional sannyasins. Skin probably refers to India’s ancient Shiva worship
tradition, since he is often depicted sitting on a tiger skin, and the grass is
kusa leaf, used by Vedic brahmins in their fire rituals. These were the
traditions that the Gita was revaluing and uniting under a common vision, by
suggesting they should all be “sat on” at the same time. Sitting on them
implies they are the support, the ground, on which the enlightened yogi is
stabilized, and yet the one meditating must also rise above any particularities
contained in those traditions to attain the requisite unity.
misunderstanding attends the phrase about making the mind one-pointed. Occult
practices often focus on an object of meditation like a flame or crystal or
mandala. Reading more closely and including what is yet to come in this
chapter, such as verse 25 where we are instructed to think of nothing at all,
we can see that the idea is to be one-pointed about settling into a state of
concentration on yoga. Yoga means the offsetting of polarized ideas against
each other, to arrive at a neutral state where all thoughts can be transcended.
This produces what is called transparency of vision or a transparent state of
awareness, where events pass through the mind without being snagged for
interpretation. In modern terms this is known as “going with the flow.” It is
simultaneously active and passive, moving and still.
13 & 14) With body, head and neck held
evenly and in
immobile poise, looking at one’s nose tip and not perceiving the (actual)
directions (of space),
with tranquil Self, with fear gone, established
in the vow
of a brahmachari, having mind subdued, related to Me through contemplative
thought, he may sit, united, having Me for his supreme goal.
13 carries the only advice in this chapter that should be taken more or less at
face value. The traditional goal of asana is to be able to sit upright and
still for meditation, with the spine in alignment. It is believed that
spiritual energy courses up and down near the spinal chord, through subtle
channels called nadi, and any twists
or kinks in the spine block the proper flow of this kundalini force.
says to (inwardly) look at the nose tip, which is somewhat misleading. Tip here
means the uppermost part of the nose. The inward gaze should be at what we
would call the base of the nose, the ajna or “third eye” between the eyebrows,
and it feels very relaxed and comfortable to do this. Holding the eyes crossed
to look at the nose is an irrelevant strain.
commentators say something like “not looking around” instead of the more
literal “not perceiving the directions,” but the intent is the same. The yogi
looks into the depths of consciousness, taking a break from the distractions of
scanning the visual field. While it’s true that everything perceived by the
eyes is the Absolute also, the specific limitations of manifested objects tend
to conceal rather than reveal this truth.
14 mainly recapitulates familiar ground, except for mentioning the vow of
brahmacharya that is taken by the brahmachari. Its ideal: “Having Me (the
Absolute) for the supreme goal,” was introduced in V, 17, and will be repeated
often hereafter, including the ultimate conclusions found in IX, 34 and XVIII,
65 and 66. We will reiterate that a supreme goal cannot be a god among gods,
such as Krishna the incarnation of Vishnu, or Krishna the ideal Guru, but must
refer through him (or a similar symbol) to the unlimited Absolute.
term brahmachari has come to have very specific implications within certain
sects of Hinduism, where it refers to the state of chastity of the seeker of
truth prior to entering the householder stage as a married person. It has come
to mean sexual celibacy almost exclusively, but that is a more recent
development, mainly promulgated by Shankara and his group toward the end of the
first millennium CE. Arjuna, among many exemplary brahmacharis, was married
himself. Nonetheless, it is an undeniable experience that for most people sex
temporarily depletes their energy, and meditation is virtually certain to be
more effective if that energy is allowed to build up for a period of time. The
dualistic view that enlightenment is the end result of the accumulation of
energy in the body is foreign to true Advaita Vedanta, however. The
breakthrough is not the result of any cumulative factors.
literally means “one who walks in the way of the Absolute.” The Gita having its
own unique style and content of instruction, we can take direction from it as
to how it is meant here: the vow of a brahmachari is an inner resolve to relate
to the Absolute in all things and at all times, to consistently move from the
perception of specific items to their relation with the all-pervasive ground in
which they exist. Such instruction is found in many guises throughout the work.
Nowhere does the Gita deal specifically with sexuality or its repression.
Because this has become an important issue in more recent times, I’d like to
offer a quote from an unpublished letter of Guru Nitya’s to a disciple in 1976:
There was no violation
virginity when Jesus was born. She is still the eternal virgin and universal
mother. But no mention is made anywhere of God’s celibacy. Of course it would
be a contradiction to say “the only begotten son of God.”
Krishna had two legally wed wives and sixteen thousand and
eight gopis who claim to be his girlfriends. But he is worshipped as a
brahmachari par excellence. Brahmachari means celibate. The great prophet
Mohammad in his infinite compassion married the widows of all his brave
disciples who gave up their life for Allah, but nobody makes an issue of it.
The Buddha was a married man with wife and child. Real virginity is not
recognized in terms of one’s marital status. The Indian word for celibacy given
above as brahmacharya means walking in the path of the Absolute. A deviation
from the path of the Absolute is called a vyahicharya,
which is the same as prostitution. A person is either one who walks the
right path (brahmachari) or one who walks in the wrong path (vyahicharya or prostitute).
One can ask
oneself Am I a prostitute or am I a virgin? No one else can decide it except
oneself, because as Jesus says “A man who looks at a woman with lust has
already wronged her in his mind.” This guilt is known only to the person and
not even to the one who is wronged. There are married men who are very faithful
to their wives, but the relation with the wife comes under the category of
prostitution because of their unilateral imposition of sex on their partners.
This kind of right and wrong [is] obvious and known in our hearts….
A seed bull is very spiritual and sacred when he can
successfully mate with a certain number of cows a week and calve all of them.
But a contemplative man who turns inward to get into communion with the most
sublime in the cave of his heart becomes a worthless stupid if he opens his
eyes to steal a glance at an external object (person) with erotic overtones. A
man who has entered into the most natural and sacred covenant of sharing the
bed with his wife, if he inhibits himself and thereby turns cruel to his spouse
after having roused her, he also becomes as worthless as the contemplative who
has falsified his covenant with God of his own sincere choice.
my knowledge there is very little scientific data on the effects of celibacy on
human beings. What there is shows that sex offers health benefits, both mental
and physical. There is a clear link between prostate health and frequency of
orgasm, and a possible one for longevity. Celibacy then has a tendency to be a
negative factor for the body. The main benefit of sex for women is that the
prospect generally makes men more civil to them. (This is a joke, sort of.) As
to mental health, author Heather Wokusch reports:
that "no sex" societies are often plagued by acts of rage. A
cross-cultural investigation by American psychologist J.M. Prescott, for
example, found that societies which punished premarital sex tended to have
higher rates of crime and violence. Prescott also linked sexual repression to
aggression, insensitivity, criminal behavior, and a greater likelihood of
killing and torturing enemies. (http://www.heatherwokusch.com/index.php?name=News&file=article&sid=53)
schools that insist on celibacy make themselves evolutionarily irrelevant. They
remove some of the brightest souls from the current of human genetic evolution,
and leave the door open for the less sublimely inclined to fill the gap. While
no one can deny that some spiritual movements have had an impact at least on
the theoretical side of human development, the flow of practicality continues
on essentially untouched by their influence. Routine assassinations of exceptional
human specimens add to the tilt in favor of ignorance. It is as though as a
species we are intentionally selecting for the lowest common denominator.
restraint of sensual feelings for a period of time is important to
contemplation, and to intellectual pursuits in general, codifying this into an
outright ban on them is the height of folly.
the best argument for celibacy is that what you spend your time doing is what
you will accomplish. If you have a burning desire to accomplish something, then
minimize extraneous factors. But there is plenty of call for variety in life,
to keep us interested and therefore alert and alive. We can do a lot of things,
including deep meditation, and still have time for sex. In some forms of
Tantra, sex is the meditation.
is certainly not linked to celibacy. Beethoven and Brahms were famous bachelors
among Europe’s great composers, but Bach fathered twenty children. Three gurus
of my lineage were all celibate, but never made it mandatory for their disciples.
Narayana Guru insisted that married couples be included in the Gurukula
movement that bears his name. Nataraja Guru toyed with the idea of marriage
until he turned sixty, after which he gave himself up to continuing his life of
abstinence. And my immediate guru, Nitya Chaitanya Yati, while being an
advocate and practitioner of celibacy, admitted that for most people it could
easily cause derangement. It must be handled expertly, with conscious
sublimation of the tremendous energy involved, else you will go mad. Most
people use repression instead of sublimation, bringing misery to themselves and
their associates. The sexual abuses of Catholic priests that have recently made
headlines are a perfect example of how repression leads to perversion. It is
highly likely that the tortures of the Inquisition were also outbursts of
repressed sexuality. It goes without saying that such acts are by no means
limited to one sect. Human repression and its consequent explosions are nearly
ubiquitous. There are many causes of derangement, but sexual constipation gives
them all an added boost.
seems to me that walking the path of the Absolute—that very Absolute that
invented sex and lavished it on virtually all creatures on our planet as a
means of rapidly proliferating the possibilities of their expression—must
include sexual joy in a loving context. Sex that is a form of violence or
cruelty, selfish and denigrating, fulfills the definition of abandoning
brahmacharya. But sex with love is a beautiful experience, profoundly intimate,
deeply spiritual, and sometimes even evolutionary when a new being is created.
needs a lover, but as the song says, most people are looking for love in all
the wrong places. What they crave is an intimate relationship, but that
essentially spiritual urge gets diverted into a plethora of tangential issues.
Of course this sublimated or repressed eroticism beautifies the world in any
number of ways if it breaks out as artistic or civic activity. A lot of our
best and most original art has been produced by frustrated lovers and tightly closeted
homosexuals. But the same frustration can just as easily lead to wars and other
violent behavior. One way or another, in personal love or artistic expression
or both, the ananda factor needs to be present in life for it to be meaningful.
yogi’s love relationship could be with a guru, or even simply the universe.
Most of us find it in interpersonal relationships like friendship or marriage.
Beneath the surface of many seekers is a craving for a loving companion, and
often when that is secured the seeking ceases. The subterranean motivation of a
craving for love needs to be brought into conscious awareness, or the
suppressed eroticism may derail the seeker’s intent. Christians used to speak
of becoming brides of Christ, and Krishna himself was famous for his erotic
attraction that drew innumerable milkmaids to him. While these are symbolic of
attraction to the most sublime state, symbols can and should be more than
abstract. If they don’t interpenetrate the Real, they are meaningless.
bottom line is that life is created or happens in order to express infinite potentials,
and its motivation is joy. Therefore a brahmachari’s vow should be to embody
and share the joy of creative living. A joyless universe might as well not
exist. We are drawn to create joy by our spirit of fun. Spiritual life is
supposed to be more fun than sex, even. If sex is more attractive, then
something is missing in the spiritual endeavor. We should be naturally drawn to
the transcendent joys of wisdom, as implied in II, 59: “Objective interests
revert without the relish for them on starving the embodied of them. Even the
residual relish reverts on the One Beyond being sighted.” This means you can only
get part way to renunciation through denial; to go all the way there has to be
an overriding interest, which is the bliss of realization. Becoming absorbed in
something thus has two senses, both of them relevant.
is repeatedly taught in the Gita and Vedanta generally, realization does not
come as the end product of any series of actions or inactions. Nowhere do these
philosophies cater to the human tendency to wish for a simple list of behaviors
to follow to achieve enlightenment. Only by meditating and contemplating deeply
on the Absolute does the bipolarity between seeker and sought come about. It is
the only goal which is not a goal.
ever unitively joining the Self, the yogi whose mind is subdued enters into
that peace which abides in Me, which has as its ultimate phase total
is one way of describing nirvana, which was explained in detail in the last
chapter. A concession is made here to unfoldment over time, to a loose version
of a spiritual path. The meditating yogi repeatedly merges in the Absolute, and
the peace of that merger gradually becomes more overwhelming until it becomes
permanent. The saints and sages we know are those who brought the peace of the
Absolute back to share with their associates in the world we live in. Those who
merged totally disappeared with barely a trace. Narayana Guru struck a perfect
balance between merger and involvement, poetically presented in verses 11 and
12 of his Subrahmanya Kirtanam, in a
free English translation by Guru Nitya:
where light is not paired with shadows, and all imaginations cease where
beatitude reigns supreme. Such is the resplendence of your supreme state. It is
as if your brilliance has swallowed the sun and the moon. Your lotus feet rest
in the brilliant fire of the wisdom of the third eye. Oh Lord, reposed on the
colorful wings of the phenomenal peacock, my supplication to you is not to
The moon has gone
horizon. With it also have gone the fantasizing dreams of the night. The sun
has risen in the firmament. The moon and the shimmering stars are no more to be
seen. It is a good time to immerse deeply into the depth of beatitude. Alas!
That does not befit the occasion. It is not the time to be lost in spiritual
absorption. Look, here is the world drowning in the dark ocean of misery. In
body and mind millions are diseased. By drinking they have increased their
torpor. These unfortunate wretches are to be roused from their drunken madness.
Oh ye people, wake up now! It is time for you to enter into the cleansing river
of eternal wisdom and perennial joy.
Narayana Guru’s ideal was to stop just
short of total
effacement, to get as close as possible to the void without losing the ability
to act. Those who can remain in that ideally balanced state are the most
effective transformers of humanity.
be sure, there is no yoga for a glutton nor for one who fasts, nor is it either
for one who oversleeps or is (over) wakeful.
middle way—finding a happy medium—is extolled throughout the Gita and applied
here to ordinary activities. Though fine as far as it goes, this verse has more
value when taken symbolically.
is used in the Gita to symbolize what we take in, what we imbibe,
intellectually and emotionally as well as physically. There are those who rush
around cramming in as much as they can in their allotted time, striving to
maximize their experiential input. They are gluttons for action. Contrasted
with them are those who withdraw into hermitic isolation, treating all events
as disturbances to their peace or threats to their well-being, who are fasting
in respect to action. Krishna would have us participate normally in our life as
it unfolds, calmly yet with alertness. Thinking that you should be doing more,
or less, is one more way of not being fully present. Balance allows for
openness. Three square meals of activity each day should be about right.
similar logic, the second part of the verse tells us that having our mind
turned off is not helpful, but we don’t have to be maniacally wide awake all
the time, either. Our relational mind must be subdued in meditation, but it has
to be alert in other activities. Consciousness has phases like the moon, and a
spiritual person rides the tides with good grace. It would be tedious if the
moon stayed full all the time, or was always dark.
is a gentle corrective here for all those who believe that acting in a certain
way will bring them to the unified state of yoga. Performing austerities on the
one hand, or being a whirlwind of activity on the other, are not central to
yoga. If they accord with your true personality, your dharma, fine. But the
tendency is to develop a spiritual ego about whatever program is adopted, and
it is very important to avoid this. A self-satisfied ego is possibly the
greatest stumbling block in spiritual life. So relax, loosen up, and don’t take
yourself too seriously. Realize your program is but one of many possibilities.
Then give it your best shot, calmly and without exaggeration.
one of proper food (habits) and recreation, who engages in activities in proper
moderation, who sleeps and wakes in a well-regulated way, yoga takes its course
we have the inverse of the previous verse, presenting the positive way of
balance after the earlier negative of going to extremes. The message in both is
that intelligent moderation is the best way to do whatever you do.
verse makes it clear that there is no occult, secret path in yoga. Yogic
attunement is in every sense the essence of normalcy. The problem is that what
passes for normal in society is actually severely abnormal. People lost in
abnormality have a difficult time discovering the happy medium or norm. They
imagine that spirituality means becoming even more abnormal than they already
are. But yoga is to be practiced right in the midst of our everyday activities
as well as in quiet meditation. The image of the guru sitting on a mountaintop
or deep in a cave is romantic, but we practice yoga in the workplace, in family
and friendly relations, in the queue at the sports stadium, while driving a
vehicle, and all the rest. Krishna has firmly asked Arjuna to stay and face the
situation with which he is confronted, and not to run away to the Himalayas.
taking its course painlessly underscores that yoga happens spontaneously in the
midst of exactly what you are doing. It’s not about forcing yourself into
unfamiliar or exotic channels. Just becoming balanced in whatever you practice
is the easiest, not to mention most correct, way to be. In fact, we are
approaching one of my favorite lines of the whole Gita, verse 28 below, in
which the yogi “enjoys easily happiness that is ultimate.”
the subdued relational mind stays in the Self itself, desireless of all
desires, then it is said to be united.
in reading the next section, we must keep in mind that this chapter is about
meditation. Sitting quietly and opening up to a greater reality is one very
important part of a fulfilling life, but it is not the whole ball game. The
Gita is often read as if we are supposed to spend eternity contemplating our
navels, but that is not its ultimate intention. Far from it.
somehow come to believe that by totally restraining themselves they are being
spiritual. Yet only by creatively expressing their dharma can they begin to be
what they are capable of. We admire and even worship those who are quiet, calm,
well-behaved, withdrawn, and so on, but there is no guarantee that is an
authentic condition. They may have snuffed the spark inside to be that way.
Even if they are in tune with their dharma, by merely emulating them we run the
risk of damping out our own spark. Imitation may be the highest form of praise,
but it’s only a preliminary step in self-discovery. We learn to dance by first
following a template, and after we get the hang of it, cutting loose.
Improvising. Liberation transcends imitation.
instruction is intended to allow us to become what we truly are, which in all
cases is a vast and unique being. Examples are intended to stimulate
creativity, not channel it. The universe wasn’t created to limit uniqueness,
but to allow it to blossom into myriad possibilities. We must remember that
subduing and restraining ourselves means that we should curtail our chaotic
peripheral interests, to allow for clear concentration and focus. It doesn’t
mean that everything is to be
restrained at all times!
being said, this is the stage of the study after the initial instruction, when
the mind can be brought to an intense focus on the core of consciousness, which
we call the unitive state. It is visualized as different analogies by different
people. In the Gita it is the Absolute in the form of the Self, creatively
engaged with rather than submissively worshipped.
a lamp set in a windless place does not flicker—such a simile is thought of in
regard to a yogi who has brought under restraint his (relational) mind, (ever)
uniting thus in the union of the Self.
are coming to the end of the preparatory third of the Gita, and are on the
verge of discovering where yoga will take us. That will be into union with the
Absolute, which subject comprises the bulk of the middle third. As we have
noted before, the final third presents the practical integration of union with the
Absolute into everyday life.
Guru has added ‘ever’ to the idea of union, which can be misleading, although
it does add a poetic touch. For most people most of the time, unity oscillates
back and forth with duality. Union at this stage is achieved through purposeful
meditation, and in the early stages it may fade into the background during
ordinary activities. Only in very rare cases will it be a permanent condition
from the start.
lamp of thousands of years ago was an oil lamp with a cotton wick or wicks. Any
disturbance in the air, imperfection in the wick, or foreign substance in the
oil was revealed by a flickering of the flame. It makes a ready analogy—here
clearly indicated as such—for the yogic state. Thoughts are like the wind, and restless
moving around creates a breeze as well. Stilling these movements allows the
flame of realization to burn steadily. The wick is like the yogi’s
determination, well made and neither too long or too short, and the oil is like
the reservoir of wisdom that feeds into it. Just as erroneous ideas inevitably
find their way into any philosophy or religion or science, bits of crud taint
the oil and make it pop and sputter as it burns. The yogi should strain the
pollution out of the teaching with a discriminating intelligence, calm the
mental and physical winds, and keep the determination perfectly adjusted. Then
the light will shine brightly and evenly of its own accord. Guru Nitya puts the
same idea nicely:
A flame that flickers
has on one
hand the flame itself, and on the other hand the wind which makes it flicker,
as something extraneous. In a windless place, however, where the extraneous
factors causing the flickering are absent, the flame just burns on.
Establishment of unity is a similar state. It requires only the removal of what
is extraneous to the situation. (Gita, 164)
next four verses are a single sentence that succinctly defines yoga. This is
the culmination of the first third of the Gita, which consists of
“introductory” material that you should have been taught in school—but weren’t.
Be sure to read the four verses together, even though we will necessarily have
to examine them one at a time.
state) where the (relational) mind attains tranquility, restrained through
continued cultivation of a yogic attitude, and where also the Self by the Self
in the Self enjoys happiness,
tranquility mentioned here harks back to verse 3, although a different word is
used for it. At the beginning of the spiritual journey there is focused activity,
which soon paves the way to peace and stability. Krishna reminds us that we
have to keep doing the simple things that free us up continuously, that an
occasional stab at it doesn’t have enough force to effect change. When yoga is
practiced as a matter of course, it becomes second nature, and really begins to
have an impact. This is not an onerous demand. Unifying the psyche with yoga is
actually much easier than polarizing everything into ‘mine’ and ‘not mine’.
Happiness is a more enjoyable and pleasant state than fear, doubt, anger and
all the rest.
for happiness is the basis of all our motivations, and so yoga should be a
pleasure and a joy to practice. Uncovering level after level of meaning as
connection with the greater whole ripens is a delightful way to live. What
should lead us to yoga and inspire us to ever greater dedication, is that it
solves problems and soothes the misery that mainly stems from our sense of
for review, the yogic attitude is the one that sees everything as united in the
Absolute, as graded polarities within an all-encompassing unity. A non-yogic
attitude sees everything as separate particles, unrelated and even hostile to
each other. The wise person recognizes the hostility as our perception of polarized
factions maintaining their compensatory sparring.
had some earlier definitions of yoga, most notably II, 50: “yoga is reason in
action.” The present one adds a lot to that extremely condensed maxim.
in which one cognizes the ultimate limit of happiness which can be grasped by
reason and goes beyond the senses, and established wherein there is no more
swerving from the true principle,
true principle is maintaining focus on union with the Absolute. We “swerve”
from it when we lapse into forgetfulness, caught up in the attractions of
sensory input and the demands of everyday life. Again, as we spend more time
experiencing the all-pervasive existence of the Absolute, we gradually become
permanently established in it.
“ultimate limit of happiness which can be grasped by reason” is a delectable,
open-ended invitation. Keep in mind that happiness and pleasure are not the
same thing at all. The Gita envisions no heaven full of great sex and feasting
and other assorted pleasures. Happiness stems from conjunction with the
Absolute in the present, in other words, the knowing of divinity within every
aspect of creation. Since its essence is bliss, the more we know of the
Absolute the more blissful our life becomes.
we are invited to cognize this condition in a way that transcends sense-based
thinking. This means that when we are attracted to a pleasure based on a
temporary situation, we should refer it to the eternal Source of all joy. We
use our ordinary joyful experiences to direct us to the ultimate joy, ascending
from the things that are fun for awhile and then become tiresome, to That which
is eternally delightful. From that standpoint the attractions of the senses
seem meager indeed. At any rate, an intelligent mental effort is essential to
this type of yogic meditation. As the Katha Upanishad (III, 12) says, in the
Hume translation, which uses “He” for the neutral Absolute:
Though He is hidden
That Soul (Atman,
But He is seen
by subtle seers
which, having obtained, there is no other gain thought of which could be
greater (in value), in which, when established, there is no swerving even by
some extent it is a redundancy that union with a perfectly all-inclusive
concept leaves nothing left over to be desired. And yet, very often we pull
back from our efforts because of what the Gita calls in the next verse
“spiritual regret,” the feeling that we are missing out on something crucial by
following our guiding star.
or dissatisfaction reveals inadequacy in our conceptualization. We need to
craft a vision that really does include everything of value. The highest value
embraces all partial values within its ambit. Exclusive ideas of the Absolute
fall short of perfection in exact correlation with the degree of their exclusivity.
The Gita’s wisdom is thus a far cry from religions that proudly proclaim a
jealous or intolerant deity, or for that matter a science that cannot accept
the validity of differing perspectives.
just witnessed a motley band of Christian extremists holding up signs by the
roadside insisting “God hates the USA!” “God hates you!” “God is America’s
terror!” and so on. A loving God who hates is a philosophical absurdity. All
the storm and fury is beside the point.
fast to truth in heavy suffering is much more of a challenge if what you are
holding onto is false. If it is real, then it is the best possible consolation
for any and all suffering. The reason is boldly stated in the next verse,
presenting the last part of the definition of yoga: suffering is a state of mind
that is transcended in yoga.
being said, for all but the most renounced yogis suffering has an impact,
because they care about their world, and it affects them. The measure of their
realization is how quickly they regain their equanimity in the midst of heavy
suffering, rather than whether or not they notice it. Non-yogic people tend to
magnify their suffering, for a variety of reasons. Yogis minimize it and relatively
rapidly regain their stability, because they realize they have nothing to gain
by carrying on.
real danger for yogis here is that the ego is content to suppress suffering and
pretend it has been transcended, which is a real feather in its cap. But that
does not cure the disease; in fact it makes it more virulent. Moreover it is
callous and cold hearted. The impending definition of yoga is “disaffiliation
from the context of suffering.” Healthy disaffiliation is brought about by
affiliation to a positive principle of total knowledge, so that our
idiosyncrasies lose power rather than gain it through tunnel vision. This means
we have to be very careful not to allow the slippery slope of suppression of
symptoms to carry us away from a dynamic engagement with whatever problematic
situation we find ourselves in.
don’t want to in any way minimize the intensity of suffering that many people
experience at some point in their life. I have had my own measure of heavy
suffering, with the death of a child, and realize that until true tragedy strikes
we have no idea how awful it is. Throughout the worst of the experience I held
hard to a philosophical orientation, but was nonetheless wracked by almost
unbearable pain. The severe shock lasted for at least a year, and the
aftereffects—which I know will never entirely disappear—were very pronounced
for at least fifteen years more. I can’t imagine anyone being so detached from
reality that they would not be devastated by something like that. The
philosophy was little more than a straw to a drowning man, but it was enough. I
knew if I was truly consoled by philosophy it would be an insult to my
integrity. The important thing was to be fully present with the devastation,
and not seek any way out of it. So I didn’t swerve into any escape, and did not
divert my attention. Please do not read this verse as an invitation to
escapism, which Krishna is utterly opposed to. Yoga is not a way to avoid
conflict, but to grapple with it to the best of our ability. That’s where the
philosophy helped me most: to hold my ground, to stand and fight rather than
flee. In the ultimate analysis, it is not possible to get away. And we must
never “regret” that we are not happy, as if the tragedy we’re facing was some
fault of someone, any more than we should welcome it. It’s not that “spiritual”
people don’t suffer and the rest do. We just remain present and work through
it, staying as strong as possible for ourself and any others who are affected
by what is taking place.
should be known by the name of yoga: disaffiliation from the context of
suffering. Such a yoga should be adhered to with determination, free from
clear and unequivocal statement of truth here forms one of the most important
ideas of the Gita. Virtually everything taught by Krishna up to this point
comes together to inform the meaning of this simultaneously straightforward and
is disaffiliation from the context of suffering.” This operational definition
provides a major climax in the work. Keeping in mind what the Gita has already
said about detachment, note that the disaffiliation is from the context, not from
suffering per se. So
what exactly is the context of suffering from which we are to become
disentangled? Simply put, it is called duality. Duality is the bifurcated
outlook that turns every family gathering into a battlefield, to use the Gita’s
overarching metaphor, where factions form in opposition to other factions based
on apparent differences. The context in which suffering occurs is the condition
of duality where “I” am separate from the object I am observing. Subject/object
duality provides a basis upon which suffering can take place. There must be a
recognition, a thought like “I am suffering,” for a person to be miserable.
Unitive mental states, on the other hand, take things as they come and don’t
add any mental embroidery to what happens. Suffering will certainly happen, as
will delight, but it is not enlarged beyond its actual value, which is much
less than a dualistic thinker is likely to presume. Then we are free to be
fully present in our life.
all know people who play up their misfortunes and carry on endlessly about
them. That this yoga is to be adhered to with determination means that there
will be many times we may be tempted to indulge in wallowing in our
unhappiness, and these must always be forcibly discarded.
we have given ourselves over to dualistic thinking, it is very hard to get back
out. It is much easier to ease into the unitive state from a position of
happiness and equipoise than from the chaos of unhappiness. Yet the unhappy
state paradoxically provides motivation that is often missing when we’re happy
and content. The human brain is naturally a bit lazy, and often does its best
work in trying to mitigate discomfort.
neuroscience has finally caught up to the rishis’ keen insight that we are
aware of our world only as a depiction staged in our mind’s eye. That means
that every bit of what we perceive is an intrinsic part of our being. Since it
is all us, it is tragic to treat some of it as loathsome and despicable. That’s
the context of an internal schism where we are in conflict with our very self,
the exact opposite of yoga. Yet the staging is so compelling that we have a
very hard time accepting that that’s what it is.
and to be free from spiritual regret! We kind of miss those good old days when
mom comforted us after we had skinned our knee or been humiliated in school.
Part of our secret darkness wants to draw that kind of attention from
someone—anyone—who can reactivate that fabulous feeling from childhood. A
godlike father or mother figure dedicated to protecting and caring for us would
be perfect. The Gita is suggesting this kind of puerile longing comes to
consciousness as a tinge of spiritual regret and is unseemly, not to mention
retrogressive. It’s a less conscious form of embroidering suffering because we
believe we’ll enjoy it. We cherish a sore heart because God didn’t come take
care of us when we really needed it, like our mom used to.
is always tied up with the past, either lamenting its passing or wanting to
rearrange it. All too often our minds subtly rewrite history in our favor,
disguising important truths about who we are. Or we excuse ourselves because of
things that already happened to us. If we come to think of ourselves as victims
of hostile and uncorrectable forces, we will become discouraged, which will
allow us to remain comfortably sloppy and mediocre.
dictionary adds for the word translated as regret (nirvinna), “despondent, depressed, sorrowful, afraid, loathing,
disgusted with.” Cetasa is “consciousness,
intelligence, heart or mind.” All these add shades of sense to Nataraja Guru’s
apt “free from spiritual regret.” Mahesh Yogi has it as “heart undismayed.” Barbara
Stoler Miller has “without despair dulling his reason.” Most other translations
I’ve seen are vague or merely offer clichés. The dictionary prompts us to add
“untainted by loathing or disgust.” Many otherwise spiritual people feel a
lingering hostility toward the context of suffering which they have rejected,
and moreover feel justified in retaining their negativity. Such attitudes play
into spiritual egotism, with its “holier that thou” attitudes. Krishna is
teaching pure neutrality, and so counsels us to be generous and let go of any
rejections we may be harboring. We are not asked to pluck the mote out of
others’ eyes, but only to attend to our own substantial heap of lumber. Most
importantly, we have to let go of our identification with the context of
suffering absolutely, which is not the same as pushing it away. The former
leaves us free while the latter retains a degree of negative attachment.
biggest thing though, and one we have to constantly remind ourselves of, is
that disaffiliation from the context of suffering does not mean retreating into
non-association with the world. Otherwise Krishna would have endorsed Arjuna’s
desire to become a hermit when he was overwhelmed by difficulties at the
outset. Instead he directs him to stay in touch with his problems. He made this
explicit back in Chapter IV, verses 4 and 5:
activities a person does not come to have the attainment of transcending action,
nor can one by renunciation alone come to perfection.
Not even for a
single instant can
one ever remain engaged in no action at all. By virtue of modalities born from
nature, all are made to engage in action helplessly.
Krishna’s real plan is to assist Arjuna
to become a wise
participant in the world, which an inactive person can never be. Over the last
few chapters, Krishna has presented the antidote to dualism—-unitive
action—-succinctly and in detail. As a side benefit, unitive thinking dispels
the illusion of meaninglessness, that there is no point to life, certainly the
most erosive belief humans have ever adopted. We can only participate well if
we know why we are doing what we’re doing.
ancient reptilian brain wiring of “fight or flight” kicks in when a dire
situation first arises, as is only prudent for the longevity of the organism.
If we decide it isn’t safe to fight, our next impulse is to run away. But the
wise person should refrain from that also-—we must neither fight or run away,
so long as the situation isn’t immediately life threatening, of course. (In
that case, run like hell!) Instead, we should listen to our inner promptings
and thoughtfully assess the circumstances, which will illuminate a range of
options that are not immediately obvious. The less the excitation, the more
level-headed will be the conclusions. What we call intuitive or instinctive
urges are the refined emotions that encapsulate plenty of intelligence. We need
to move toward those and away from raw fear or manic attraction. Yoga is
nothing if not a way to become even-tempered in the midst of problems so that
our well-developed inner wisdom—somewhat inaccurately called reason—can be
brought into play.
that pit one side against another, so that there is a winner and a loser, or
good guys and bad guys, are dualistic. If the same occasion is treated
harmoniously, all participants are winners, in the sense of enjoying and coping
with their part in the game. Games in fact are a perfect example of the difference
between unity and duality. How frequently do we see a stress on “winning the
championship” or “setting the record,” which produces one success and multiple
failures? But games played unitively are done purely for the enjoyment of the
activity. If you join the fray with that attitude, there is no context of
suffering. But if you have to win or be the best to be happy, plenty of
disappointment lies ahead.
then, is unitive participation in everything you encounter, by which the context
of suffering does not even
completely all desires originating in the will for particularized ends, curbing
the collection of sense-functionings on every side
next two verses form one sentence epitomizing the yogic technique of active
“desires originating in the will for particularized ends” is a way of stating
the familiar central tenet of the Gita, that we must relinquish specific
desires for the fruits of actions, by abandoning all expectations about
outcomes. That doesn’t mean we can’t be optimistic, only open to unknown
the collection of sense-functionings means curtailing our attention to sensory
input in order to free the mind, which has also been presented earlier.
Krishna, having just sketched some preliminary guidelines and succinctly
defined yoga, is now teaching Arjuna how to meditate in earnest. All that is
extraneous is pared away, leaving only the barest essence.
slowly, activities should be brought to a standstill by reason steadily
applied, establishing the mind reflexively in the Self, without thinking of
activities to a standstill via the steady application of reason is the kernel
of the Gita’s meditation practice. Activities don’t stop by themselves; it
takes conscious intention to settle them down to a minimum. There is no
particular technique required to accomplish this; it is just something you put
your mind to. Krishna already gave Arjuna instruction in this toward the end of
the second chapter.
we act to correct imbalances, but very often we overreact to them, and so
perpetuate them negatively. Instead of “rushing off half-cocked” in this
manner, we are instructed to take a dispassionate look at the entire context.
To do this we must disengage from our initial impulse, shrug off our compulsive
need to always be right, set aside our habitual prejudices, and calmly examine
the situation from every imaginable perspective. At first this depletes our
actions of their hysterical or neurotic energies, and as we gradually become
more centered, the need to intervene to alter the inherent rightness of the
world drains away entirely.
writer Franz Kafka describes this aspect of meditation most poetically: “You do
not need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not
even listen, simply wait. Do not even wait, be quiet, still and solitary. The
world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice, it will
roll in ecstasy at your feet.”
Guru has translated this verse’s atma
samstham as “establishing the mind reflexively in the Self,” correctly
giving the sense of the Self perceiving the Self, as described in verses 5 and
6 above. Despite having forgotten our true nature, we are not in any way alien
to it. Most translations have something like fixing the mind on the Self, or
holding fast to the Self, as if it were other than us. The dictionary gives the
sense of residing or dwelling in the Self, and includes “standing together;
standing or staying or resting or being in; belonging to, based on; partaking
or possessed of; in the presence or midst of.” All these senses are germane. By
emphasizing the reflexive aspect, Nataraja Guru wants to preserve the sense of
dialectic resonance, where we are drawn into the Self by our natural affinity
with it, and not as invaders or explorers of a foreign land.
seekers strive to hold onto certain thoughts, or at least have some direction
in mind, while meditating. We gain much more by opening ourselves completely to
whatever influence the Self has to offer, by not thinking of anything at all.
Our thoughts automatically limit the range of our meditation. While actively
thinking and analyzing are valuable and important in a healthy discipleship or
field of study, we optimize our meditation by temporarily emptying our minds to
the maximum extent possible. Afterwards we can assemble the inspiration into a
comprehensible structure, if we are so inclined, and that can be very helpful
in our daily life.
causes the changeful, unsteady mind to go out (again and again), from each
such, restraining it (again and again), it should ever be led to the side of
we find more technical advice. Only a very accomplished meditator will sit undisturbed
by thoughts and urges. Almost all of us have brief moments of quiet, which are
quickly eradicated by our mind “going out” to dwell on some object or idea.
Before we know it we are in the kitchen rummaging in the fridge or thinking
about walking out to our car, barely aware we were meditating a moment ago. The
advice here is to gently set those “urgent” thoughts aside, if only for a short
while, and keep setting them aside whenever they return. They can wait. Don’t
forcefully suppress them, and by all means don’t get down on yourself for
having them. They are completely normal, and may never have been restrained
before in all your long life. It will take patience and forbearance to settle
Indian psychology, thoughts and desires have power of their own. As noted
earlier, superficial ones based on conditioning in this lifetime are called
samskaras, and deeper-seated ones from the genetic history or perhaps past
lives are called vasanas. They resemble bubbles rising up in a carbonated drink
to burst at the surface. The surface is what we call the waking state of mind;
the drink is the unconscious. There are uncountable numbers of these bubbles.
Just as there is no point in waiting for your drink to “go flat” and stop
fizzing, which would take many days and leave you with an insipid and
unpalatable residue, vasanas and samskaras are not going to cease pressuring
you to find the means for their expression. The best (and the worst) of them
are expert at getting your attention and making you do things.
your meditation period, though, you can examine them more or less
dispassionately, if you can separate yourself from their influence. Try to view
them as external forces rather than identifying with them as being the “real
you.” They are worthy of admiration, because they are so good at what they do,
which is animate your whole system based on past events and habits. If you
don’t learn to recognize them they will go on driving your train forever. But
as you look at them and see them in isolation, they begin to loosen their grip
on you. Before long, as they come up you will begin to recognize them. You will
see them as old habits and not as commands that must be obeyed. After
meditating on them you are more free to promote the healthy ones, those that
passed the test of your examining them scientifically and dispassionately. But
for now, ask them to wait a bit, so you can sit still.
a yogi, verily, of calmed mind, of pacified passion, who has become the
Absolute, free from all dross, comes to supreme happiness.
we are properly meditating, we enter a state where all the junk has sloughed
off. Dross—waste matter or crap—is by definition extraneous, or at best
secondary. When we come out from under all the junk that clogs our life, the
calm, peaceful state of supreme happiness is our natural condition.
must be understood unitively, not as the polar opposite of unhappiness. In our
translation we generally use pleasure and pain to refer to the polarized
conditioned of temporal happiness and unhappiness, leaving happiness, joy or
bliss to stand for the eternal, unconditioned state. This is a classic
dialectical structure, with pleasure and pain (happiness and suffering) as the
thesis and antithesis, and supreme happiness as the transcendental synthesis.
enough, unity cannot be the polar opposite of duality, else it would not be
unitive any more, but it does emerge from the uniting of opposites in
dialectical wisdom. Krishna uses the adjectives supreme here and ultimate in
the next verse to differentiate the subject from ordinary pleasures. These
adjectives are necessary because Sanskrit has the same ambiguity as English,
where one word must be used for two different types of happiness or joy. Here
the word sukham is employed, which is
the polar opposite of duhkam, pain or
suffering, hence the need to qualify it as supreme.
some religions, there is no supreme or eternal pain or unhappiness in this
system, though it might appear that way when you’re suffering.
the trivial pastimes of modernity are legendary, it is not just modern man who
is confronted with the glittering attractions of dross or detritus. Pastimes is
the exactly appropriate
word, by the way. For those who imagine the hereafter to be the only reality,
activities are used to pass the time until death welcomes them into its arms.
Actions don’t mean anything other than a ticket to heaven, because life is
meaningless except as a steppingstone to death. But yoga meditation is about
being alive here and now, and the Gita has already made it clear that if we
desire to attain happiness through seeking out pleasurable experiences we are
not fit for the practice.
is a projection of our inner state of mind. It is absolutely essential to be
aware that true happiness is not the byproduct of any temporary object or
event, and that it is discovered as the very essence within us. Once the bliss
of the Absolute is realized, all objects and events become intensely meaningful
as they bask in the glow of that supreme happiness.
has already proved to us that our true nature is of the Absolute. The famous
great dictums (mahavakyas) for
Upanishadic meditation boldly assert this truth, which can only be
self-evident. We are instructed to ponder, in order: I am the Absolute; This
Soul or Self is the Absolute; Everything in the Universe is the Absolute; That
Absolute You Are (I am). The dross of our life is linked up with our seemingly
separate identity, and when we pacify this illusion we return to our intrinsic
nature as the Absolute.
you stop to think about it, of all the manifold impossibilities with which the
universe is rife, creating something that is not itself is the most impossible.
How does substance create non-substance, or how can particles produce
non-particles? How does sameness produce otherness? Or, for that matter, how
and why does nothing create everything? It’s a fitting subject for meditation.
Comprehensible or not, we are all the Absolute through and through, which, in order
to know itself, has become all this. It has veiled itself from itself to create
the endlessly fascinating panoply of existence.
uniting thus the Self, that yogi, rid of dross, having contact with the
Absolute, enjoys easily happiness that is ultimate.
I mentioned earlier, one of my favorite phrases anywhere is “enjoys easily
happiness that is ultimate.” Hard to beat that. The easiness is because we
don’t in any way have to make it up or create it. It is our very state of
being. As long as we’re in touch with our true nature (“uniting thus the
Self”), we are in touch with ultimate happiness.
worth noting that in the last verse the yogi had merged with the Absolute, but
here there is simply contact with it. The next four verses continue in the same
vein, following a descending or externalizing trend, with the yogi knowing and
extrapolating the Absolute but not remaining merged in it exactly. This is a
foreshadowing of the overall scheme of the second half of the Gita, where
Arjuna first has an experience of merger with the Absolute and then has to sort
out what it means and apply it in his life in increasingly realistic stages. In
this group of six verses Krishna is cleverly tying up all our states of mind
with the Absolute ground, showing Arjuna how to relate to the Absolute from
every possible perspective.
whose Self is united by yoga sees the Self as abiding in all beings and all
beings as abiding in the Self, everywhere seeing the same.
primary realization is repeated in this chapter on meditation, because it is
meditation that brings it about. All beings without exception are expressions
of the Self, which is the Absolute. Knowing this, it is impossible to have a
completely hostile attitude toward anyone. Sure, we have to be careful, because
some people are dangerous and even deranged. No matter how weird, however,
nothing can ever be truly Other, since we all spring from the same source.
Knowing this not only diminishes fear, it has a decided impact on the
surroundings, which definitely resonate with a person’s mental state.
eye of the yogi sees that the many emerge from the One, and cyclically return
to it. A religious person might conceive of the One as God, while the
scientifically minded prefer to picture it more along the lines of the quantum
vacuum, or possibly as the ocean of atomic and subatomic particles that
comprise the substratum of the perceivable world.
rishis apparently had some awareness, long before the invention of microscopes,
of the atomic nature of reality. We now can be quite sure that all complex
matter is comprised of molecules, many of which are identical in widely
divergent entities. Molecules mainly consist of a small handful of the 92
naturally occurring atoms in various combinations, and atoms in turn are made
up of only three factors, protons, neutrons and electrons. While these can be
shattered into several subatomic particles, there is an overarching tendency to
move in the direction of an intrinsic universal substance or oneness as the
microcosm is accessed. One might imagine the space that particles reside in as
being that universal singular condition equivalent to the Absolute, unvarying
within all the variables. While it may not be intelligent in any human sense,
it is clever enough to fashion a universe of well-functioning, complex
entities, linked in a stream of meaningful coherence. That’s not exactly
the human realm, both the Hitlers and the Gandhis share a common structure.
Their sharp differences are plainly visible, but the eye of the yogi adds the
dimension that they are also very much the same in essence. This permits yogis
to act appropriately and with understanding, because they can perceive the
essence of people beneath their surface variegations. Understanding and
consequently compassionately tolerating is not the same as approval. Always
remember that proper understanding is unitive, while approval is dualistic, the
flip side of disapproval. Those who mentally flee from people they are afraid
of or disapprove of tend to run into the arms of equally malicious “friends,”
compounding the problem rather than resolving it.
who sees Me everywhere, and sees everything in Me, to him I am not lost and he
is not lost to Me.
we have a particularly fine example of the Gita’s reflexive language. When
pairs like these are used as thesis and antithesis in dialectical meditation,
the synthesis revealed is “Me,” the Absolute. “I am not lost and he is not lost
to Me” sounds like a tautology; however, it is spiritually significant, because
contrary directions are implied. They are to be contemplated as negating each
other in order to arrive at a neutral state of mind.
if a seer sees the Absolute, the Absolute is not lost to them, unless they happen
to be gazing on a false image and mistaking it for the real thing. A proper
course of instruction is intended to insure this doesn’t happen. On the other
hand, a person is never lost from the Absolute, except to the extent that they likewise
fail to perceive that everything (including themselves) is the Absolute and the
Absolute is everything. Many religions speak of lost souls, or of irrevocable
separation from God, known as eternal damnation. Here Krishna is assuring us
that this is impossible. It may work as an exhortation for keeping church
members in line, but a contemplative quickly realizes there is nothing more to
the claim than hot air. This is really a very beautiful and touching assertion
of Krishna. Earlier, in IV, 36, Krishna affirmed, “Even 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.” It means our numerous shortcomings and
mistakes do not ruin us in any sense that cannot be repaired, so we shouldn’t
let them get us down, only try to do better next time. Before long, in IX, 30,
he is going to reassert the same idea, because it is an extremely important
realization, one that replaces despair and hostility with hope.
Gita does use the word ‘lost’ several times, and it can sound devastating in
English, but here it merely indicates the state of not seeing the Absolute. All
disasters are worsened by ignorance of brahman, but the condition is eminently
rectifiable. How we get lost was detailed as early as II, 62 and 63:
sense-interest there is born in man an attachment for them; from attachment
rises passion; in the face of passion (frustrated) arises rage. From rage is
produced distortion of values, from distortion of values memory-lapse, from
memory-lapse comes loss of reason, and from loss of reason he perishes.
Nataraja Guru used to make the drastic assertion that those who weren’t
interested in delving into the mysterious meaning of life were spiritually
dead. But turning to the wisdom of the Absolute resurrects the dead, bringing them
back to life. That’s exactly how it feels, too. In the ultimate analysis, this
verse uses a double negative to assert a positive truth: that we are in every
sense the Absolute and can never be permanently separated from it.
this series of verses we are no longer united. Now we are “seeing” the
Absolute, understanding its implications. There is one degree of separation.
The next two cover first a worshipful attitude and then a dutiful one. Krishna
wants to be sure all valid perspectives are covered, in descending order of
yogi who honors Me as abiding in all beings, established in unity, remaining as
he may in every possible way—he abides in Me.
the somewhat more casual yogi is merely asked to honor the notion of the
Absolute and this will have effect of unifying their mind. Honor of course
means more than the inattentive nodding of the head we sometimes associate with
the term, as with a military salute or something equally formal and ritualized.
Typical mundane honors in this context include the various forms of religious
ritual and worship, such as placing an offering on an altar, or literal
obeisance. The honor here described by Krishna requires much more than pro
forma behavior. There is a sense of reverence, or at least intelligent
appreciation, implied. Our attitude has to spring from the heart to have the
requisite effect of linking us with the Absolute. The meaning here is if we
treat all beings as divine, it will be easy to remain universally kind and
considerate to everyone. Ahimsa, non-hurting, springs from this aspect of
relating everything to its transcendental core.
know so many ostensibly kind-hearted people who balk at this simple idea. They
think of examples of despicable people and draw a thick line of rejection
around them. The problem is then they are no longer “abiding” in the state of
realization. They are polarized. Krishna has tried to obviate this impasse by
assuring us that everyone without exception is built out of the Absolute, no
matter how abased they may happen to be in their life. This is definitely a
different perspective than the deeply engrained duality of us versus them,
which morphs into holy versus unholy and the saved versus the damned that so
plagues the world with conflict. The ego thrives in this terrain.
are not being asked to judge, or prove our innocence by scorning criminals.
Yoga is a meditation. Only an attitude of total acceptance will allow us to
sink into a neutral state where our higher self can be accessed. Negativity can
never bring us to equanimity. Therefore we have to learn a more enlightened way
of interpreting our environment. We should still not kiss the hissing cobra, if
and when it appears, but sitting safely on our seat we can know it is just as
divine as we are.
most important feature of this verse is “remaining as he may in every possible
way,” which means that there is no particular lifestyle associated with
realization at all. Whatever you do and wherever and even whoever you are, you
can have your mind absorbed in the Absolute. There is definitely no “army of
God” here, no uniform, no prescribed activity of any sort. In fact, those
outward forms are a distraction, tending to become diversionary ends in
themselves rather than turning the mind toward the ineffable.
establishing an analogy with the Self, he who sees equality everywhere, whether
in pleasant or painful situations—he is considered a perfect yogi.
is the last of the series of six verses delineating states of decreasing
absorption in the Absolute while remaining yogically attuned. They began with the
meditator being equated with the Absolute, next touched on direct contact, then
visualized (in two verses, the first seeing all beings in the Absolute and the
second the opposite, seeing the Absolute in all beings), then honoring or
worshipping, and here simply relating to it via theoretical analogy. Almost all
of us experience each one of these grades of absorption at various times. It’s
not that we each are stuck in a single category, any more than that we are consigned
to any particular caste. Sometimes we are deeply absorbed, and sometimes we
find ourselves wondering if we have any knowledge of the Absolute at all. At
times when we feel lost or disconnected, analogy can come to our rescue. We may
not feel truth in our bones, but we can recall what it means in terms of how to
live. It’s purely abstract, but we are assured that this is what a perfect yogi
does in such straits. In the fluctuating course of events, if we maintain our
dedication we will return to the profundity of connectedness in good time.
Upanishads are rife with analogies devised to throw light on the relationship
of the One with the many, like the ocean and its waves for instance, or
unformed clay and the pottery made from it. The analogy using particle physics,
mentioned under verse 29, can work well. Actually, virtually any subject that
is pondered will expand over time to include more and more territory and more
and more insight.
in this fashion allows the yogi or the scientist to bring their mind back into heightened
attunement, by readjusting the imbalances imputed by specific aspects of
existence. A religious person could trace an event back to the invisible cause
called God, if they are so inclined, lending a numinous glow to seemingly
ordinary matters. Such a meditation establishes an openness to harmony.
Imperfect “yogis” such as religious fanatics create disharmony by emphasizing
the differences instead.
analogy widely cited in Vedanta is of the sun in the sky and its reflection in
myriad dewdrops. On a clear day we can’t even bear to look at the sun, but we
can see it reflected everywhere, in all grades of brightness. We might cherish
the beauty of a glistening dewdrop, but we also know the light doesn’t
originate there. The whole ensemble is neither of the one sun by itself or the
many dewdrops in isolation, but of both together.
is giving his disciple some very important material here for his meditations.
Treating aspects of life in isolation is fine up to a point for scientific
scrutiny, but it opens the door to factionalism and enmity, all manner of
conflict. By establishing an analogy with the Self Arjuna can relate
individuals to humanity as a whole, or fit separate creatures into life as a
whole. He can even compare matter with the universe as a whole. He might ponder
the relationship of a humble blade of grass to an entire meadow, or a tree to
the forest. In every case the totality is made up of a conglomeration of unique
parts, but it is also much more than that. There are so many pertinent forms
that this paradox takes, all of them leading the mind back to the wonder of the
absolute value at their core. This is the wisdom that harmonizes us with our
world and reduces conflict.
fairly new field epitomizing the one and the many, sameness and otherness, is
the study of emergent phenomena. By itself a single ant is fairly mindless. It
might even be called stupid. But gathered in a herd or flock or whatever you
call a swarm of ants, they exhibit highly purposive behavior. Together they can
accomplish a tremendous amount and demonstrate extensive complex collaboration.
Something intelligent “emerges” from what is imagined to be their sheer
numbers. Of course, if you pile up sand on the beach it doesn’t become
intelligent no matter how much is there. That means there has to be more than a
purely material explanation for the phenomenon. But at least with living
creatures we can look to the totality as being intelligent, where the part is
more or less deficient, or what Vedantins call ignorant.
are not so very different from ants. The whole idea of democracy is based on
the belief in emergent truth from a heterogeneous group in which each member
may be a bumbling yokel or simpleton. The actual origin of the idea of emergent
phenomena came from an examination of all the guesses made by humble visitors
to a country fair on how much meat an ox would provide after it was dressed.
The guesses varied wildly, and no single one came very close, but the average
of all of them missed the actual weight by only a single pound. Subsequent
studies guessing things like beans in a jar continue to show similar results, indicating
that the collective mind is vastly more intelligent than its parts. At least it
is when the guesses aren’t manipulated by “expert opinion,” which invariably
skews the result. A group does much better when each person listens to their
inner voice rather than going along with some pundit.
yogi-scientist doesn’t necessarily have to posit intelligence as the
substructure of the universe, but it is hard to rule it out, either. Something
even stranger would have to fill the void. The present verse invites us to meditate
on it and cook up analogies, and just by wondering along these lines we will be
absorbed once again into the mystery of the Absolute.
yoga you have outlined as consisting of sameness, O Krishna, I do not see for
this any stable foundation, owing to changefulness.
once again demonstrates his excellence as a disciple by putting his finger
exactly on the problem he has—everyone has—with what Krishna has just taught.
Sameness is all well and good, but where is it to be found? It is not something
that leaps immediately to mind, because everywhere we look there is a changing
landscape, seemingly with no solid underpinning. Arjuna has not yet done much
meditating, so he hasn’t spent enough time in the unified state to become
familiar with it.
type of changefulness Arjuna is referring to is the mercurial lack of
concentration that besets the beginner especially, but which is an issue for
all of us to face throughout our lives. The mind moves, while the Absolute
stays stable—how can they ever be brought together? At the same time, the
Absolute is ever in flux over time, while our concepts remain more or less
rigid, so they can never be perfect reflections of truth. We appear doomed to
always be out of step with whatever the Absolute is conceived to be. Because of
this, many people—though not Arjuna, obviously—reject the very concept of an
Absolute ground. Clearly, one essential element is to train the mind to
concentrate and remain steadily in conjunction with the stable flux of the
Absolute for longer periods, which is the purpose of the activity called
change get a bad name here, we should also keep in mind what Guy Murchie writes
in The Seven Mysteries of Life, (p.
268) describing the evolution of consciousness:
The first essential
consciousness is change, particularly noncyclic, irregular or startling change.
And such a concept explains why mere knowledge, which is generally static even
when not distinctive or inherited, is seldom very conscious (depending on your
definition) while learning, which always involves change, is much more likely
to be conscious (by any definition).
type of change called learning is very desirable and linked to the development
of consciousness, and is of a different order than static knowledge. Thus
knowledge is not adequate in itself, but should always provide a solid
launching pad for new flights of fancy and incorporation of information, known
as learning. What is coming in for correction here, on the other hand, is the
inability to pay attention and stick to the subject. One aspect of intelligence
is nothing more than the ability to concentrate and remember what is being
concentrated on. It is a lovely paradox that the more we can stay firmly
attuned to a subject—the more we are absorbed in something—the more we can flow
along with its unfolding revelation.
mind is changeful indeed; it is agitated, forceful, and imperative (in
character); like the wind, I consider its control difficult.
verse is an echo of something Krishna taught Arjuna back in II, 67: Still
moving amid sense interests, that item to which the mind submits draws away the
reasoning as the wind does a ship on the waters.” Beginners and even veteran
meditators are constantly having to let go of impulses that pull them away from
meaningful probes and into superficial attractions. There has to be a sincere
resolve to shrug off distractions, and this is indeed difficult. Sooner or
later they regain their dominance.
cannot easily control the wind because it comes from a distant source and is
just passing by. Like that, our vasanas, our latent predilections, originate deep
in our psyche, far beyond conscious access, gain momentum out of sight, and by
the time they are consciously apprehended they have achieved gale force. With
effort we can deflect them, or better yet harness them constructively, but they
cannot be totally prevented from blowing. Despite this, there is a widespread
misconception that they are to be squelched rather than sublimated.
it’s hard to quiet the mind because of all the suppressed vasanas shouting for
attention and expression, as they are directed to healthy outlets it becomes a much
simpler matter to stay steady. When you are engaged in a project of absorbing
interest, mental chatter becomes less and less disruptive. Thus, expressing our
natural inclinations once they have been intelligently sorted out is the ideal
meditation, simultaneously unforced and constructive.
the west we are taught to identify with our mind, so we come to think of the
wind blowing through us as who we are. In Indian philosophy the mind is treated
more as a tangential factor, the coordinator of sense impressions, and only one
aspect of our true beingness. This makes detachment from the winds of chance
much easier, and the seeker is less likely to feel guilty about the natural
upheavals that periodically rock the psyche.
of those winds are our natural talents expressing themselves as our dharma, and
some are destructive reactions to our ongoing struggle for existence and the
traumas we have endured. The yogi learns how to distinguish them and weed out
the impediments, allowing their best qualities to flourish.
the mind is difficult to control and changeful. By practice and by dispassion
it can be held together.
and dispassion are abhyasa and vairagya,
respectively, two of the
primary principles of yoga extolled in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, one of the
other foundational texts of Vedanta. Abhyasa is practice in the sense of repeated
efforts, and vairagya is often translated as detachment, though dispassion
comes closer to the Gita’s idea. Patanjali teaches that these are the primary
techniques to restrain the influence of memory on our actions, otherwise known
practice Krishna is not referring to any arcane physical or mental secret here,
merely the adherence to the suggestions made earlier in this chapter. These
include the simple meditation sketched out in verses 10-14, moderation in
behavior, and cultivation of a yogic attitude, covered in verses 20-33.
should be clearly understood that dispassion is not the suppression of passion.
It’s being so absorbed in love or joy that superficial attractions no longer
interest you. Without love or some other meaningful stimulus of enthusiasm,
dispassion is only a kind of living death. Calmness is not an end in itself, it
is the ideal platform for dynamic alertness.
particular confusion of values is very common, and it manifests in curious
ways. For instance, many disciples feel apologetic about asking questions in a
spiritual setting. After all, how can you have questions if you are being
dispassionate? Doesn’t questioning imply doubt? Isn’t it disrespectful or a sign
of ignorance? Doesn’t detachment mean ignoring the questions that come into
your mind? The answer is no. You should ignore the silly thoughts that are the way
the mind plays games with you, but at the same time you should be diligently
digging below the surface to unearth questions of real import. There is much to
be learned. In the Indian model, at least, the sishya or student is required to
ask questions of the teacher. The teacher or Guru is merged in contemplation of
the Absolute, and so only responds when a question draws them out. The image
often invoked is of a milkmaid milking the great divine Cow that supplies all
nourishment. You must pull on the udder to get the milk of wisdom. If you don’t
pull, the milk stays where it is, out of sight. Pondering deeply in order to
come up with a germane question is the sacred duty of the sishya. Guru and
sishya are therefore entwined in a dialectical, reciprocal dance, and one is
not superior to the other. Both are equally nourished in the process of question
not press the comparison too far, but even with an ordinary teacher something
like this has to take place. And we are all teachers as well as students. The
point is that well thought out questions are central to the learning experience
and the bipolarity between student and teacher. Even when some go off on
tangents, sometimes the tangents reveal new aspects to the topic that otherwise
would not have come to the surface. I have found that almost all of the
questions I’ve been asked bear some relation to the subject, even those that
initially appear far from germane. It takes a wise questioner to ask the
perfect question, and wisdom flowers forth when questions are encouraged.
one of my classes, someone with a Buddhist background got up the courage to ask
why the Gita was recommending that we suppress our enjoyment of life by
detachment. It turned out that practically everyone had a similar misconception,
and it inspired a long discussion to clarify the issue. If no one had
questioned the way the Gita spoke of curbing the excess of joy, we wouldn’t
have dealt with the confusion we all have around dispassion, and we might have
all spent the rest of our lives keeping ourselves bottled up and dead. Thank
goodness it came up!
have included a definitive assessment of the role of passion under XVII, 5.
a Self uncontrolled yoga is hard to attain; such is my opinion; but by a Self
which is its own support, endeavoring, it is possible to reach through the
lucky ones who have had a transcendental experience by accident spread the word
that it can only be attained by not trying. And yes, striving can block any
number of possibilities from spontaneously springing up. But we lay the
groundwork for wisdom by bringing our intelligence to bear, and bringing it
back when it wanders. Without that effort, we become sloppy and unfocused and
little or no transformation will take place.
studies using MRI and other brain scans have revealed much about the workings
of our most complicated organ, and these studies show that the ancient rishis
were spot on in their assessment of how we think. It is now known that the
brain uses a substantial portion of its capabilities in performing various
functions. The old saw that we use only ten percent of our brain is false. It’s
true that we are only conscious of far
less than ten percent, but many recondite parts are busily humming along much
of the time without our even knowing it.
brain is also coming to be recognized as being far more flexible than was
previously thought. At any age, new cells can be grown, old ones enhanced, and
new connections forged. This supports the rishis’ contention that we are
capable of vast if not unlimited redirection and expansion of our awareness. If
we can expand, why shouldn’t we?
the fMRI studies show about this verse includes that we have trouble learning
new subjects and behaviors, and ridding ourselves of entrenched habits, because
our brain reinforces what we use it for. Therefore if we decide to change, we
have to overcome a lot of inertia gathered behind our former ways. This is
crucially important to a spiritual aspirant. A lot of effort is needed in the
beginning, but as new neural pathways are forged the momentum grows. Of course
this can work for or against us, reinforcing debilitating notions as easily as
practitioners often make the mistake of trying to suppress old habits in hopes
that the new ones will find a foothold in the vacuum created. Actually,
suppression acts mainly as a negative reinforcement of the bad habit. Pro or
con, you are still focused on it. It is far more efficacious to step completely
out of “the context of suffering” and put energy into a new vision, building up
positive aspirations that naturally draw energy away from the old.
the Gita says that “the residual relish reverts on the One Beyond being
sighted,” (II, 59), it is in harmony with the same conception. Perversely, the
“relish” is secretly maintained by the suppressive efforts, but when the
attention abandons old ruts to embrace the Absolute, or any other replacement
paradigm, the relish is no longer fed, positively or negatively, and it fades
away as new neural connections are formed.
concept (if we may even use the word) of the Absolute as beyond means that it
is outside of any and all neural limitations. To open our minds to the fullest
possible extent we must use the most unfettered possible replacement paradigm.
If we are satisfied with a limited pattern, our meditation and our thinking
will be compromised in exact proportion to the limitation.
can’t do better than to close this section with an excerpt from That Alone,
by Guru Nitya, that
paraphrases this exchange:
bring about oneness through wisdom, compassion and fellowship. At this juncture
in the Gita, Arjuna says to Krishna, “This all sounds very fine, but I have to
actually live it. My mind is not under my control. Like a wild wind it comes.
Sometimes a ship lying quietly on the sea will be caught by a wind which drags
it away and batters it and breaks it to pieces. This is exactly what my mind
does to all my decisions and good intentions. I take a good resolve, but like a
typhoon the mind comes and whips it away and wrecks it. What can I do?”
agrees. “That is so, my dear Arjuna. Mind cannot be forcibly controlled.
Sometimes it is like a whirlwind. But don’t you see that the mind is not a
whirlwind all the time? Your mind may be restless for a little while. It may
smoke and fume. But after some time it calms down, and when it does you have
access to it. That is the time to show it the right way. When the mind is
sitting calmly, show it there is no need to boil. Your true nature is divine,
and everything is a manifestation of the Divine. Don’t feel agitated. Deep down
the mind understands. The next time it raves, somewhere it will know that this
is not the right thing to do and it will settle down faster than the previous
this way Krishna shows how to gently tame your mind by detaching yourself from
the things with which you are infatuated. Also how, by continuous abhyasa, continuous
practice, you can
make it learn to love everything as aspects of the one Being or the one
Supreme. How, by maintaining vairagya,
detachment, and doing abhyasa
continuously, you will one day be able to make your mind fully in harmony with
your vision of oneness.
meditation of this verse [Atmo 38] is to watch for the many tendencies to close
down or become narrow in your vision. Instead, enlarge your boundaries and thus
find your release. Only then will the functional reality of seeing oneness
become a persistent way of life. (267)
37 & 38) Arjuna said:
who is unsubdued (but) endowed with faith, whose mind has deviated from yoga,
not reaching to yogic attainments—what path does he take?
he not fallen from both like a riven cloud, destroyed without a mainstay,
confounded regarding the path of the Absolute?
word ‘both’ is rather mysterious, not having a specific referent here. Arjuna
is thinking of a concrete (horizontal) world and an ideal (vertical) world as
separate, with a gulf that needs to be crossed to go from one to the other.
This is the classic conundrum of the self confused by duality. I, a sinner
embroiled in the world, am here, and God, the unbounded, is over there, and
never the twain shall meet. Arjuna has not yet grasped the secret of unity that
the guru is striving to impart, and he fears that he will not only not reach
God but he will have abandoned worldly wealth and pleasures in the attempt,
leaving him with nothing.
a dualistic outlook brings Arjuna back time and again to the idea of merit.
Somehow the horizontal world must be refined and perfected, and then it will
open the gates to the vertical essence. In a unitive scheme, the horizontal and
vertical aspects are not mutually exclusive but mutually complementary. We are
not trying to go from one to the other, we are trying to join both together. Or
rather, they are joined, and we are striving to appreciate exactly how that
truth is that realization is not only of the special and spectacular, it
includes the ordinary quotidian side of life too. Every bit of existence is
miraculous, and it’s only because we have become dulled to it that we long for
“signs and wonders.” Instead of looking for something far away, we should bring
our attention to the here and now, and accord it its full measure of wonder.
But because of this very typical confusion, Krishna will console Arjuna in
terms of a path, assuring him that he can never be lost. In yoga, no
backsliding is possible. If you really learn something, it stays with you.
is without doubt confusing and difficult to grasp without profound reflection
and contemplation. No wonder Arjuna is growing anxious and sounding desperate.
He’s been studying for a reasonable amount of time, and yet he still doesn’t
get it. This is not a theoretical question: he pictures himself as the fellow
who’s tried hard and made progress, but nonetheless falls short of the mark. He
is philosophically making a non-personal example of his personal fears, which
is admirable and quite appropriate for an advanced student to do. A raw
beginner talks in personal terms; a more advanced seeker is able to generalize
can modernize Arjuna’s question by putting it this way: I’ve been blessed to
sit at the feet of a great guru and I’ve learned a lot. Still, I have not been
able to let go of my sense of separateness to completely become the Absolute.
If I’m reborn, will I have to start over from the beginning? Or if not, will I
simply disappear at death, not having identified myself with that which
persists when all else perishes?
sure most of us have wondered along these same lines as well. Having lost faith
in imaginary heaven worlds and gods, just what is in store for us? Arjuna will at last be convinced by the intense
soma ceremony he will experience in Chapter XI. Until then he will continue to
voice his doubts and fears so that Krishna can address them, as is only fitting.
doubt, O Krishna, you should dispel completely. Other than you there is none to
be found to dispel this doubt.
reiterates his faith and dependence on his guru. He is still confused, but his
trust is getting deeper all the time, and it will soon culminate in the perfect
bipolarity that allows Krishna to reveal his nature as the Absolute to him.
This will be discussed in detail at the opening of Chapter IX.
doubt is a measure of what he still doesn’t quite understand: unity with the
Absolute. He is eagerly asking for more wisdom from his guru, and is by no
means desiring to dispense with doubt simply because it causes him distress.
This latter notion has somehow become a spiritual cliché of our time. Seekers
are taught to relinquish their doubt at
the beginning, as if it were an end in itself, and not after using it as an
essential tool to achieve their own insights. This can and frequently does have
disastrous consequences, enshrining dullness, or worse, allowing manipulative
characters to assume management of the seeker’s life. This holds true just as
much for soldiers, employees, spouses, and many other types of citizen. Doubt
should be extolled as a high virtue of a healthy life, not as a fault to be
after all, is what propels progress—positive change—both individually and
collectively. Systems that disallow doubt rapidly become petrified, and
frequently petrifying, as they tend to enforce stasis through violence, or at
least passive aggression. Since manifestation is always in a state of flux,
severe measures are required to suspend it in an unnatural state of rigidity.
is a normal, healthy process by which outmoded beliefs and theories are
dispensed with, opening up room for fresh embodiments of the Absolute to flood
in. It is the way falsehood is discovered and subsequently swept away, thus
making it one of the key spiritual attributes. Lack of honest doubt means that
illusions are allowed to hold sway long past their expiration date, clung to by
is a world of difference, though, between respectful, thoughtful doubting, and
contemptuous doubt. The latter seeks to degrade and destroy, not to establish
truth. It is rampant in the modern world, due to lack of any norm in people’s
psyches. Because they are certain of nothing, they presume no one else can be
either. They deny the possibility of knowledge in their anguish, thus cutting
themselves off from any chance of resurrecting a healthy and untroubled state
of mind. They are left with the vain hope that they can raise themselves up by
running everyone else down.
kind of doubt discountenanced by scripture bears little or no resemblance to
the healthy doubt of an inquiring mind. What it is supposed to mean is that
once you have chosen a course of action you should put your whole heart into
it. Attaining to one-pointed concentration is the road to success in any
complex endeavor. Doubt at that stage is merely the whining of a lazy ego
trying to preserve its stature as king of the couch potatoes. If you have
decided to meditate, for example, there is no benefit whatever if you just sit
there thinking, “This is silly,” “It won’t work,” “Why bother?” “How about
something to eat?” and so on. Such irrelevant doubts should certainly be cast
aside as stumbling blocks, no matter where you’ve decided to put your energy.
is very fortunate to be able to present his honestly felt doubts to a wise
preceptor on whom he knows he can rely. Such mainstays are rare, and of
inestimable value. Doubts that are not met with intelligent responses often
spin out of control, and lead to bitter dead ends. Krishna will immediately
provide the necessary reassurance to protect his disciple from this unfortunate
sects cite this verse to bolster a claim that Krishna is the only divine being,
the only one capable of magically dispelling doubts, which is ridiculous. For
Arjuna, he is the man of the hour, but each of us must find our own teacher or
confidante. Krishna is an excellent example, and his recorded words can help us
immeasurably, but none of us will meet him outside of tales and legends. The
same is true of the protagonists of other religions. Guru Nitya has a beautiful
passage speaking to this in That Alone:
We have not seen
the Buddha, we
have never met Jesus Christ, nor Socrates. We have never seen Kant or Spinoza,
Shakespeare or Shelley, Kalidasa, Valmiki, or the philosophers of far-off
China. Bach, Mozart and Beethoven were isolated within a tiny section of our
planet. Still, our human heritage is molded by the brilliant thoughts of all
these wonderful people from all around the world: the poets, storytellers,
those who made the myths and legends, the inventors, composers, scientists and
discoverers. Whatever they have contributed is still present in our lives,
guiding us, teaching us, and helping us every moment. But they are not here.
Only the friend next to you is here, the friend who exemplifies and
incorporates all those wonderful qualities and insights. And we can all share
this tremendous inheritance and even more, with each other, to make life an
ecstatic and joyful experience. (140)
neither here nor hereafter is there destruction for him, for none of good deeds
ever goes to perdition.
instantly moves to counteract Arjuna’s fears, and the strength of his
assertions tips us off that Arjuna was having a major crisis of doubt, much
more than we might have suspected. It is par for the course to have periods of
doubt or loss of nerve when penetrating into unknown territory. Many turn back
or abandon the search. Yet it would be highly unsatisfactory for Arjuna to quit
now and leave us in the lurch. He will have to go all the way, so that we too
may see what lies in store for us if we press on. Without Krishna’s help he
would be at a loss. Very, very few of us have the gumption to go it alone.
40-45 constitute a curious sort of anomaly, introducing merit where we have
come to expect its absence. A careful reading of the entire work, though, gives
us the key. Within the transactional, horizontal world, merit exists in myriad
forms. We are only cautioned that it doesn’t get us any closer to or farther
from the Absolute. According to V, 15, the Absolute does not take cognizance of
the meritorious or unmeritorious deeds of anyone. Merit is a reciprocal process
within actuality, and it is undoubtedly helpful in some respects, but it is
beside the point and even an impediment to realization. Grasping the Absolute
is a unique accomplishment not dependent on any outside factors.
II, 50 Krishna said, “Affiliated to reason one leaves behind here both
meritorious and unmeritorious deeds.” He is talking about a process of
verticalization. Questions of merit dominate simple minded people and children,
who have to learn to be “good” to abide with society. As reasoning is brought
into the picture, the selfish motivations involved in thinking in terms of
merit are revealed. They are what isolate us, reinforcing our sense of
separation. “Yoga is reason in action,” (also II, 50) means that intelligence
is a superior motivator to either desire for attainment or fear of punishment,
because it reunites us with our environment.
II, 40 we read: “In such (a path) there is no forfeiture of any merit, nor is
there involved any demerit by transgression.” That assurance means that it’s
not so much that merit doesn’t exist within the path of yoga, but that it
doesn’t ever go away. Our default setting is meritorious. And anything we learn
stays with us. For instance, if you are truly compassionate, you can’t later
become uncompassionate (barring neural degeneration). If you do, it’s because
you weren’t really compassionate in the first place. You were faking it.
has taught Arjuna not to be motivated by merit, to find a better reason for his
actions. For now he is going to reassure him by asserting that nothing truly
gained will ever be lost. Arjuna is panicky and needs some encouragement right
now. A guru leads you into the Unknown and is there to hold your hand if you
draw back in fear or confusion. Stepping outside your comfort zone takes some
getting used to. But Arjuna has barely begun. Many more terrifying growth
spurts lie ahead.
attained to the worlds of the righteous, and having dwelt there for eternal
years, he who deviated from the path of yoga is reborn in a house of the pure
and well to do.
this world, to be both pure and well to do is quite rare. Purity in just about
any large-scale economic system is all but a guarantee of poverty, and being
well to do almost a guarantee of corruption. I say this in part because this
section of the Gita is rather anomalous, introducing all sorts of dualisms into
its unitive message. So there is definitely a relativistic infusion here. If we
were going to guess at whether some verses had been added later by religious
enthusiasts, this one, and even this whole last section, would be a prime
candidate. It probably passes muster mainly because it assuages peoples’ egos.
Nonetheless, its thrust does provide stimulating food for thought.
the Gita, Krishna goes on and on about how we must stand above the conditions
of our life, remaining equal minded through the best of times and the worst of
times, but now he’s implying that doing good works brings us better
circumstances and a happier future? It’s a jarring contradiction.
good for any future purpose, selfish or not, makes it contractual rather than
artistic or unitive. That suits the horizontal world just fine, but is inimical
to more subtle, vertical aspirations. Krishna must be confident that Arjuna is
not making the mistake of obsessing about his fitness for realization, but is
simply learning how to be, without
any pretenses or external motivations, otherwise this would be misleading information
he is giving him.
maintain the requisite balance we should consciously invert the last phrase of
the previous verse, which read, “no one of good deeds ever goes to perdition.”
No one of bad deeds ever goes to perdition, either. We are all part of a very
long evolutionary unfoldment, made interesting with innumerable ups and downs
but from all appearances arcing toward enlightenment. The Gita has made this
abundantly clear in several places already. There is no more unequivocal
statement than IV, 36: “Even 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.” Still, it must make some difference in how you act, mustn’t it?
word for perdition is durgatim, which
literally means bad or difficult path. Arjuna specifically asked kam gatim, what
path? in verse 37, so
Krishna is responding to the exact wording of Arjuna’s perplexity. As a guru,
he would naturally offer solace and support to any of his disciples in their
moment of doubt, but Arjuna is a stalwart and honorable fellow and his goodness
is not in question. So Krishna is not simply cheering him up with a vote of
confidence, he is offering a more meaningful kind of reassurance: thinking
clearly and practicing the yoga of equal-mindedness makes your path easier,
while following your unrestrained impulses makes for hard going.
it can’t be totally reassuring, because Arjuna is wondering if he’s going to
make the grade or not, but here Krishna is speaking of someone who has almost made
the grade already, who has
been righteous for a long time. It’s rather mysterious. In the final analysis,
our actions do have some influence on our path, but the yogi treats them as
incidental, attending instead to inner challenges. Non-yogis treat them as
being of preeminent importance, and focus their energy on altering outward
conditions. It is easy to get caught up full time in tinkering with the details
of living comfortably, so yogis are advised to at least drop the subject
regularly for periods of contemplation, if not entirely.
readers of this wisdom text have sometimes succumbed to the temptation of
dualism, and overlaid their ill-considered prejudices onto the Gita’s teaching.
They reason that if this sort of divine karmic justice is so simple and
infallible, then anyone who is having a hard time must have caused their own
difficulties and so deserves what they get. The fact that some other people’s
karmic impulses may have led them to abuse, manipulate or take advantage of
these unfortunates—not to mention invisible forces like germs, pollution, fate
and so on that have their own trajectories—is never brought into the equation.
It’s all their fault, period. This is a harsh and pitiless attitude, based on
an oversimplification of the world’s complexity.
is so complicated there never is any one-to-one correspondence between cause
and effect. The impulses to action are more like swarms. Among many other things, this means that
just because you are having a tough time in this life does not mean you were
bad in a past life. There is nothing more disgusting than self-righteous
condemnation based on fantasies that don’t take the complex circumstances of
life into account. Science has ever tried and failed to link intelligence and
so on with racial and other hereditary factors, and thus codify existing
inequalities, but they remain indeterminate, because there is no connection.
Luck cannot be predicted scientifically. But bigoted snobs don’t need proof,
they can just believe what they want and attribute it to God’s unerring
judgment. Discrimination thrives best where intelligence is banned. It’s so
much easier to imagine that people bring all their troubles on themselves than
to investigate their complex causes, allowing you to turn away with a “clear”
conscience—meaning a conscience walled off from reality—rather than lending a
narrow-minded attitudes stand in harsh contrast to the Gita’s open and
all-embracing philosophy. Its message includes confronting problems face to
face, rather than pushing them away with an insular mindset filled with
disdain. Spiritually speaking, those qualities we spurn in others are very
likely ones we are suppressing in ourselves, and being suppressed have to find
new ways to get our attention. They come to us disguised as others.
Guru evades the puzzle of “well to do” by pointing out that in the Vedic sense
it would mean spiritually well to do, not just materially. Yet that aspect is
covered in the next verse. Regardless, the idea is that as you make progress in
a spiritual endeavor, your environment (in all senses) becomes more conducive
to furthering your progress. Dedication produces its own momentum, which
reinforces the dedication, and so on in an endless feedback loop. On that we
can all agree, I hope.
he is born in a family of wise yogis only. A birth like this is very rare to
obtain in this world.
pure and well to do is a rare enough combination for anyone’s family, but wise
yogis are as scarce as hen’s teeth. Since the widespread institution of
chastity for monks and yogis, which mainly took place after the Gita’s time,
being born among wise yogis must have become vastly more rare. If people truly
believed in reincarnation, or evolution for that matter, it would seem they
would encourage saints to reproduce.
living with saintly parents as a child would most likely be terrible, because
they would be too busy to pay much attention to you. The real optimal childhood
would be among simple but open-minded folk who had a lot of time to interact
with you. People who love children. Being a wise yogi must include loving and
caring for children, then. This indicator obviously favors mothers, whose love
for their offspring is supreme, as the wisest yogis among us.
hundred people will have at least ninety different notions of how to raise
children, and many of their theories will be polar opposites of good care. The
more we want to craft someone else’s life for them, the more damage we may do.
The more doctrinaire our ideas, the more they engender a mismatch with a
child’s actual needs. Even the best-intentioned parents are frequently unaware
of how much pressure they put on their children and how much pain they cause by
trying to channel them into the “right” path. Thus happenstance seems to be as
good a program as any for optimal child development.
these somewhat tangential considerations is the nub of the matter. Kula is the word
used here for family. A
kula of wise yogis could well refer
to the family of a guru, a gurukula, rather
than a birth family. Knowing how children like to reject what they think their
parents’ interests are, this is probably the kind of family meant here. The
birth referred to then must represent the moment when we discover and accept our
true spiritual family, which often follows a substantial contemplative gestation
period, and not our physical birth as an infant. We enter our family of wise
yogis when we are ready to benefit from the adoption, usually as adults. Life
does seem to work that way—when we are ready to take a step in our spiritual
development, circumstances will favor it. If we are welcomed into a cogent and
supportive community, it is one of the rarest and most beneficial blessings we
could ever hope for.
he obtains that union with reason, pertaining to a previous body, and strives
thence again for perfection.
the beginning of the next chapter, Krishna will note the extreme rarity of
dedicated seekers of truth. We may wonder why those few are driven to probe for
truth in the first place. Where does that impetus come from? This section
provides one possible answer.
is certainly mysterious why some people are drawn to ponder the Absolute while
most are too busy coping with the demands of everyday living to give it more
than a passing thought. Beyond the workings of Luck, Chance and Fate, past life
impetus is a reasonable speculation. The very souls who have put a lot of
energy into connecting with the Absolute in a previous existence may find
themselves impelled by curiosity welling up inside them. When a force emerges
from the unconscious like that, it is only reasonable to attribute it to some
cause beyond conscious selection. The concept of vasanas, dealt with earlier,
covers this idea.
united with reason, buddhi, means
that the vasanas or unconscious urges from past experience are able to resonate
with the intelligence to bring about a conscious program of action. These are
the kind of vasanas that we need to support and enhance rather than suppress.
We are fortunate indeed if the vagaries of fate align with us in this endeavor.
is the rare quality that impels us to strive for perfection in any field. The
word comes from the Greek en theos,
meaning “the god within,” or “possessed or inspired by a god.” Similarly, the
new term for psychedelics is entheogen, meaning “generating or accessing the
god within.” These terms are reminders that our inner determination and
enthusiasm to seek truth, bliss, or any other form of excellence, erupt from a
mysterious depth inside. Enthusiasm is far from a conscious choice. It is
almost as if there were a separate divine being taking possession of us, but
the Gita, like modern rationalism, treats it as in integral part of who we are
in a holistic sense. The god within is who we in fact are.
it’s difficult to generate enthusiasm once it has been extinguished, with
effort it can be revived. It is a kind of reservoir, biding its time until it
is invited to pour forth once more. Knowing there is a tremendous potential
somewhere within us is of inestimable value. All the same, much of our
enthusiasm is not dependent on how we conceptualize it. It takes a lot of hard
work to damp it down. If we are born into favorable circumstances, our environment
will support us in enthusiastically working toward perfection rather than demanding
we bottle it up and become submissive.
word genius has a similar derivation,
originally referring to an attendant spirit or deity specific to each person. Modern
theories of genius accept a powerful inner drive common to all healthy human
beings, which is eventually suppressed in most but continues to burn as a
bright flame in a few. Spirituality can be seen as the set of attempts to
rekindle the spark of genius within and fan it to a roaring blaze. As Krishna
says in IV, 11, there are many ways to do this, and sooner or later we will hit
on the one best suited to us: “As each chooses to approach Me, even accordingly
do I have regard for him. My very path it is, O Arjuna, that all men do tread
from every (possible) approach.”
the former practice itself he is drawn on, though disabled; as one merely
desiring to know of yoga, he transcends the Absolute of sound.
the theme of the previous verse, it is very curious how some people are drawn
to investigate yoga or read books like the Gita, and others have no such
inclinations. Getting to the point where investigating the meaning of life is
not only intriguing but of overriding importance is probably the first
essential step on the spiritual path. Inscrutable though it is, it can readily
be attributed to past life efforts, as is done here. For that matter, our early
childhood is remote enough to qualify as a past life for most of us. However we
conceive it, enthusiasm wells up from the depths and impels us to develop our
expertise. It seems like it must be coming from far away, from outside of us.
It should make us very grateful to the currents that carry us along despite our
ignorance of where we are going.
phrase “though disabled,” probably meaning “as though disabled,” is intended to
indicate that there is an inner pressure that impels the former yogi to move
into supportive circles, without any conscious deliberation. The stories of how
spiritual seekers came to their chosen path are filled with sweet
“coincidences” and “accidents.” Mozart and other geniuses at birth are the
poster children for such inexplicable fortunes and abilities, but we may all
benefit—or suffer—from some kind of karmic impulse that we don’t seem to
deserve. Positive opportunities are appearing all the time, to everybody, but
we mostly let them slip by unheeded.
recall a friend of mine who was doing poorly in her high school math class. She
used to skip the class and go to the library instead. One day she stumbled upon
a copy of the Bhagavad Gita. There was nothing like it in all her experience,
but she read it eagerly, even though it made almost no sense to her. Years
later that karmic seed burst into growth when she happened to see a notice in
the local newspaper that someone named Swami Nitya was going to teach a class
on the Gita. She immediately decided to attend, and quickly became one of his
closest disciples, and that stimulating connection turned out to be the most
important part of her life by far. Someone else lacking her inner preparedness
would most likely have taken one glance at that book on the shelf and quickly
moved on to something more familiar. What was it in her that guided her hand to
that book? We can call it her inner guru, but that doesn’t begin to explain the
phenomenon, it’s just a name for it. At least Krishna’s lesson should make us
more alert to the possibilities swirling in the air around us.
the Absolute of sound (sabdabrahma) calls
for an explanation. In Chapter XV we will meet three Absolutes: a manifested,
an unmanifested, and an utterly transcendental Absolute. Sound being considered
the highest form of manifestation in Upanishadic times, Krishna must be
referring to the first of these. The manifested Absolute is roughly equal to
the usual concept of God, or the totality of creation in the materialist view.
Heaven worlds would reside in it, and Krishna is forever counseling that the
seeker go beyond such intermediate stages.
says that the sabdabrahma refers to the teachings of the Veda. This verse then
fits in perfectly with the Gita’s theme of transcending the teachings of
religion to attain the Absolute. The Maitri Upanishad (VI, 22-23) discusses the
Sound Absolute at length. It says that there are two Absolutes, sound and
non-sound. The Sound Absolute is Aum, and one uses it to go beyond to the
higher, non-sound state. Also, by closing the ears and meditating on the sound
one hears in the space of the heart, one goes beyond it to the ultimate peace.
The Maitri teaches we should reverence both the sound and the non-sound
Absolutes, the lower and the higher, together. More of Krishna’s discussion of
the manifested and unmanifested will be found in Chapter XII.
the yogi who strives with perseverance, purified from evils, and perfected by
many births, then reaches the supreme path.
gently drifting with the currents will eventually carry the lackadaisical yogi
to the highest goal, how much more efficacious is it to strive, to put energy
into the prospect?
is speaking in Arjuna’s terms still, with the reference to a path. In the next
chapter Krishna makes it plain that being established in unity with the
Absolute is the highest path. In Chapter VIII, the Imperishable is called the
highest path. We can only conclude that the highest path is not a path at all.
It is the state of union with the Supreme. It can only be called a path because
life doesn’t stop with realization, it continues, blazing with light. The path
resembles the wake of a ship that is cutting its own path across the waters.
we think of evils unitively, they are merely instances of ignorance, blind
spots that trip us up of our own volition. They are our own weaknesses, not afflictions
from without. We will never overcome them if we blame them on external forces,
which is a clever way our ego diverts attention away from anything that
threatens its imaginary dominance. We have so many tricks to avoid
self-correction! Possibly the single most important effort of the yogi is to
invert all the energy expended on outward criticism to inward examination and
to skirt the speculative (and diversionary) issue of physical reincarnation,
the many births Krishna mentions can be easily thought of as epiphanies in our
present life, flashes of insight that lead us out of the valley of the shadow.
Every time we forge a previously unprogrammed mental connection or firmly
renounce one of our faults, it marks the birth of a new version of ourselves.
The evolution of our psyche is like a series of deaths of our old self, to be
replaced by a revised version. Superficial changes are mere window dressing,
but transformations that are substantial enough to rewire our neurology are significant
steps toward the ideal of perfection, which in this context means union with
the Absolute. We have a long way to go—many, many births, in this very life—but
that’s a good thing.
yogi is greater than men of austerity, and he is thought to be greater than men
of wisdom, and greater than men of works; therefore become a yogi, Arjuna.
three main paths to enlightenment in the popular mind are listed here as
inferior to the Gita’s version of psychodynamic yoga. Krishna is wrapping up
his bolstering of Arjuna’s confidence with an exhortation that he aim for the
highest: “Since it is the best, become a yogi, Arjuna!”
Austerity calls to mind the multitude of
practices, some of which are also called yoga, that are intended to improve the
practitioner. Over time these have become less and less arduous, which is just
as well. As previously noted, their main thrust is to suppress the ego through
self-discipline, sometimes bordering on self-flagellation. Krishna is not
denying their possible efficacy, only that they aren’t as good as yoga in the
form of unitive wisdom and action. They are generally unpleasant and relatively
useless, and mainly appeal to people who have been taught to despise or at
least undervalue themselves. Nonetheless they are widely popular. In healthy
yoga, the ego is readjusted—either inflated or deflated depending on its
starting posture—to become normalized. The I-sense has an important role in the
overall scheme of consciousness, and both its suppression and its over-inflation
are fraught with hazards. Only when it is just the right size does it settle
into its modest and proper role, no longer imparting a spin of selfish bias
onto every encounter.
Wisdom is usually translated here as
knowledge, in order to make the subtle distinction with yoga easier. But the
word is wisdom all right. Erudition guided by wisdom can be extremely
beneficial, and hence the qualification that yoga is “thought to be greater”
applied to this category alone. But wisdom in yoga is dynamic, while without
yoga it can be academic, detached from a meaningful relation to life. Yogic
wisdom actively engages with whatever arises. If wisdom in any way becomes an
end in itself, dissociated from a sense of purpose, it falls short of its
Works refers to ritual actions, or
really, actions in general, where it is thought that simply carrying them out
is all that is required. A lot of people think that doing something nice for
someone else makes them a spiritual person. Religions like to suggest well-defined
activities to foster team spirit. Many of them extol “good works” of one kind
or another as the high road to holiness.
actions are more or less admirable within a horizontal context, certainly, but
they don’t have anything to do with enlightenment. At their best they are
performed by those who are following the example of other enlightened beings,
hoping that by following their footsteps they might attain the same exalted
state. Their very arbitrariness blunts their spiritual value and makes the
practitioner less flexible than they should be. At their worst, “good works”
are a lightly veiled form of abuse and manipulation, as in evangelizing and
three methods have their pluses and minuses, but they tend to be somewhat static,
while a direct relationship with the Absolute is flexible and dynamic. Yoga is
praised here as the best way to open yourself up to that dynamism.
of my favorite comments by Nataraja Guru in his Gita is appended to this verse,
and I take the liberty of reprinting it here:
tapas (austerity) as it is known in
the field of Indian spirituality, is a severe form of joyless self-discipline.
The jnani is a wise man who might at best belong to the Samkhya (rationalist)
or Nyaya (logical) philosophical schools, whose life is based on reasoning
which generally ends up with sophistications and academic discussions, by
themselves dry as dust. Likewise the ritualist tends to become ego-centered and
harshly exclusive. Yoga generally understood is both a way of thinking and a
way of life. The yogi is a dialectician who harmonizes old in terms of new and vice-versa,
and is capable of giving
fresh life to arguments which otherwise would be dead or stale. The breeze of a
fresh life enlivens the ways of a yogi.
of the types of spirituality referred to here, when they are taken according to
a yogic method or theory of knowledge, become, as it were, transmuted. This
verse states the superiority of such a yogic way in both practical and
Krishna’s simple and poignant call
still echoes down to us
through the ages: Don’t settle for mediocrity! Become a yogi, O Arjuna.
all yogis, he who with inner Self is merged in me, full of faith, devoted to
Me, is considered by Me the most unitive.
their superlative character, the first six chapters are in a sense preliminary,
laying the groundwork for the more nuanced discussion to follow. We are now
properly prepared, and Krishna is summing up his teachings to this point. It
should be clear that a deep affiliation with the Absolute brings about unity,
with its consequently natural faith and devotion. Their use here is very far
from being a religious cliché.
have faith in what we know. As we come to know with greater clarity, a level of
confidence that few people feel begins to grow in us. Knowledge that is
oriented toward the Absolute rather than some will-o-the-wisp means it is
intelligent. It is by no means the docile acceptance of truisms, but more like
a sweeping away of all obstacles. We have faith that by overcoming our faults
we can be happier and more effective. We have faith that by seeking we will
find, that by loving our hearts will grow bigger. And so we do all these things
devotion is not to be taken in the sense of bowing to some idol or fixed set of
beliefs. Devotion means holding firm to the focus of our life, and not being
constantly led off into tangents by all the glitz and glamour of the world.
Artists are devoted to their art, businesspeople to their commercial
enterprises, athletes to their sport, religious types to their worship, and
scientists to their research. If they can see or even merely visualize the
unity blending all actions together in a web a life, it adds an extra, crucial
dimension to their pursuit. Then no matter what field a person is drawn to, is
devoted to, there is an excitement and dedication in them that lifts them to
honor of the great teacher who made this present commentary possible, and whose
spirit looms large within it, I’d like to close this chapter with another quote
from Nitya’s Verse 38 commentary in That
Alone, (p. 265):
In the sixth chapter
of the Gita
Krishna says, “Be established in me. What makes a thing what it is, is its
beingness. A thing becomes stable because of its beingness. Know me to be that
beingness. Without me nothing can be, because I am the beingness. After having
found it, feel devoted to it. Let your love flow toward it as the one beingness
in all, as the one beingness which makes truth truthful, goodness good, beauty
beautiful, love endearing.”
cultivate this through constant meditation. I am not speaking of meditation as
sitting cross-legged with eyes closed, or some such. Life itself is a
meditation. Everything passing in our life is a theme of meditation. When you
say “this exists” and “this does not exist,” what enables you to say it is that
beingness. That is what we are asked to adore as the one God. It is up to your
taste to call it God, or the Supreme Principle, or the one reality, or
beingness, or what you poetically feel within you as the greatest empathy you
can have, the sense of beauty you feel as an artist, the great love you feel as
a lover. In all these there is a substantiality of beingness. You sense it from
the Gita says to see That as your own central reality. You are constantly
saying “I am, I am, I am.” What assures you of that “I am” is the light within
you. “I am That” is just like saying “I am that I am.” See it as the Absolute
in you. Thus, having found beingness as the reality of everything, and as your
own reality, it is easy to see that the real in you and the real in all other
things are the same. This is how you gain the secret of sameness, samyam. It will bring you great
serenity, great peace.