contemplation does not mean sitting in meditation all day long, as some
imagine. It means being continuously aware of the subsurface level of the
apparent world, the Absolute or light. This includes not being fooled by
appearances, by being intelligently attuned to the context in which events take
place. This chapter presents a fascinating reevaluation of the seeker’s
relation to their surroundings.
people consider their spiritual aspect as not overly important, more of a
sideline to the important business of making a living. They find brief periods
here and there to wonder if there is more to life and what it might entail.
“Continuous contemplation” implies that these priorities are reversed: that
everyday concerns move into the background, taking on a supporting role, while
delving into the meaning of life moves to center stage, driven by a passionate
thirst for truth. Back in Chapter VII, Krishna has already admitted that only a
rare person is motivated enough to make the necessary effort.
joy of being well fed and housed is undeniable, but there is more to life than
gathering our daily bread. The most satisfying bliss comes from expressing our
full range of creative abilities, be they artistic, intellectual, intuitive, entrepreneurial,
empathetic, or what have you. Arjuna has just glimpsed his untapped potential
and is eager to make it a continuous part of his life. Hopefully you have too.
is the chapter that most delights religious-minded readers, as bhakti has
widely come to be viewed in religious terms, where the idea is to become
overwhelmed by some intense emotion and imagine that that links you with God.
For highly constrained people such activities can certainly be therapeutic,
providing them opportunities to overcome their inhibitions. While this may well
lead to some blissful experiences, its undermining of the intellect can promote
religious partisanship and exclusiveness. The duality implied in ordinary
worship has a tendency to bite back in the long run. In any case, Bhakti Yoga
is not the same as mere bhakti in the popular sense. Rather than trying to lose
yourself in some form of worship, the aim is to remain “found” in some way such
as Arjuna achieved in the preceding chapter. The frenzy of uninhibited bhakti,
similar to Arjuna’s rampant vision, is to be cooled down and made a permanent,
sustainable state of mind.
philosophers do not speak of love, exactly. Bhakti is one of the words that
comes closest to describing that mysterious and delightful state. Regarding
bhakti and its practices, Nataraja Guru comments in his Integrated Science of the Absolute (III, 61): “Emotion and
Self-knowledge have the same difference as blind and true love.” The
distinction is the same between ordinary bhakti and Bhakti Yoga.
devotees who worship You ever unitively, and those again who meditate on the
Imperishable and the Unmanifested—-of them which excels in yoga knowledge?
has just had a direct experience of the divine, or what could be called his
whole being. As he emerges from the profound absorption brought on by the soma
Krishna recently gave him in a sacred ritual, an infinite range of new
possibilities beckons to him. He naturally wants to know how to remain
permanently in contact with such an extraordinary state.
soma every day is not an option. Psychedelic medicine only reveals the
possibility of union with the Absolute, and it does a very good job of it. Yet
anything that comes and goes cannot be the Absolute, so using drugs to zoom up
and then spiraling back down as they wear off is automatically disqualified,
not to mention debilitating in the long run. Many popular forms of bhakti, and
not just psychedelic medicine, are intense and transient, and thus produce a
high rather than yogic equanimity. While undoubtedly fun and even educational
in moderation, the yogi treats them as only a single preliminary step and moves
on before they can become a snare.
Arjuna’s intimate experience of the Absolute is now an event of the past.
Memories of cosmic events have a significant but limited value. They can have a
tremendous impact, opening the mind up to many of its hidden potentials, but at
the same time if treated in a doctrinaire manner they can actually become
inhibiting to further direct experiences. “You can syndicate any boat you row,”
as the Beatles sang, meaning you can institutionalize your insights, but you’ll
be losing a great measure of your freedom in doing so. Cosmic memories must
somehow be kept in perspective, lest they either swell or unduly shrink the
ego. Integrating them into the present is a complex endeavor, for which Arjuna
is extremely lucky to have an able helper close at hand.
is asking Krishna whether he should he imagine the Absolute as a deity and
worship it, or should he visualize the Absolute as devoid of all attributes,
intangible, like pure light or love. In either case, after the very real
intensity of his experience it would be difficult to characterize it as
emptiness or nothingness. Something is definitely there, but is it a god or
merely the way things are by themselves?
This question is very much on the
front burner in our day. Science considers the miracle of existence to be
intrinsic to the nature of things, while religion posits it as brought about by
an outside agency that can be invoked. As Krishna has often affirmed, whatever
way you view it has a commensurate value. Moreover, if you take any perspective
to its logical limit, it converges with all the rest.
two main approaches to Whatever It Is may be generalized as the positive and
negative paths. The positive is affirmed by the mantra asti asti, “and this and this.” You know that the Absolute is the
essence of everything, so you relate lovingly to everything you encounter.
“Love thine enemies,” “The guest is God,” “My house is your house,” and “We are
One,” are some of the related mantras from other traditions. The scientific version
is to see how everything affects everything else in measurable ways.
neti, “not this not this,”
expresses the way of negation. You are striving to go beyond all forms and
names to contemplate the transcendental reality in its raw unmanifested state.
You accept all the stuff that exists, but you pry your mind away from it by
reminding yourself that it is not, in itself, the Whole Shebang. Everything created
is inevitably limited. Early Christian hermits exemplified neti neti when they
went deep into the desert to escape social oppression and forcibly suppressed
even their bodily needs. Scientists use complicated and expensive tools to peer
farther and farther below the surface. As Krishna notes below, this is the hard
way. Asti asti is easier and gentler. More of the nuances of these two paths
will be discussed throughout the chapter, and again in Chapter XV.
first blush, asti appears to be the more unitive approach, because it treats
the light as being within everything. Neti runs the risk of presuming that the
light is somehow separate, setting up a more dualistic viewpoint. Yet, as with
all philosophical paradoxes, it is not quite so simple. Asti can ensnare you
more easily, as when you mistake the form for the substance, and neti avoids
that trap. Luckily, they are not mutually exclusive. A seeker can and should look
at the world from both perspectives, though not always at the same time. Dialectically
uniting them opens the mind to the full mystery of the Absolute.
God part of or separate from creation? Is everything God, or is nothing God? Is
the world real or unreal? Arjuna’s uncertainty is one of the ultimate
philosophical conundrums, and as with all profound paradoxical propositions it
doesn’t have a pat answer. A yogi aims to integrate these conflicting possibilities
into a single vision, finding a way to treat them inclusively.
with minds entered into Me, who unitively meditate on Me, with a fervor
pertaining to the Supreme—-those according to Me are the most unitively attuned
obligingly offers Arjuna a definite preference: that he should meditate on a
personified version of the Absolute. He is going to immediately qualify this as
being due to its simplicity. The harder path, that of seeking the unmanifest
essence, is equally capable of bringing understanding when carried out
guru must instruct appropriately in keeping with a disciple’s inner tendencies.
Arjuna is not a particularly mystical type, and he was uncomfortable with the
direct transpersonal connection with the Absolute he has just had. It sounds
like Krishna is expressing a general preference for a positivist mysticism, but
very soon its negative counterpart will be embraced as well. The path should
suit the traveler, else it will be full of unnecessary bafflement and
difficulties. Krishna will presently assert that in the ultimate analysis both
paths are equally effective.
oneness at the heart of the Absolute is in the process of becoming actualized
in a duality consisting of spirit and nature, or in modern terms, consciousness
and matter. This produces a triplicate
Absolute—transcendent-unmanifested-manifested—that will be examined in detail
in Chapter XV. But for now, the Gita is examining an approach to the
transcendent via either a manifested or an unmanifested methodology. Note that
in this chapter Krishna’s use of “Me” signifies a personified image, whereas
for the most part we take it as standing for the transcendent Absolute.
Guru translates sraddha here as
fervor, not just because it suits the sense well but also to avoid the more
loaded term, faith, which is its more familiar meaning. (Sraddha is accorded
its own entire chapter, XVII.) In his comments he emphasizes that this faith or
intense love is directed specifically to the Supreme or the Beyond, and does
not refer to mere religious devotion focused on an object. Nonetheless, right
now Krishna is definitely speaking about love directed to and through a
conceivable entity. In the next verse he contrasts this with love for the
inconceivable. During the course of the chapter these two polarities are
subsumed in a transcendent synthesis, demonstrating that we don’t have to
exclusively adhere to one or the other. As we already know, Krishna is
inclusive rather than exclusive. A yogi unites rather than selects and defends
the same time, we are free to choose in keeping with our personal inclinations.
We are drawn to what interests us most, and all honest paths lead to the
supreme realization of the great mystery. And, as with wisdom and action and
all other dualities, a yogic understanding brings them together as aspects of
the same underlying reality. Nataraja Guru puts this very well in his comments
on verse 4: “When properly understood there would remain nothing to choose
between the two cases.” Realization is not ultimately dependent on the way
taken to achieve it, and it is fully independent of how we conceive of it.
Lucky for us, and lucky for it!
3 & 4) But those who meditate upon the Imperishable, the
Undefinable, the Unmanifested, the All-Pervasive, and the Thought-transcending,
the Firmly-Established, the Immobile, the Constant,
having restrained all sense-aggregates, regarding all with
equalizing understanding, interested in the well-being of all creatures—-they
reach Me too.
we have a fine list of non-religious meditations for the skeptically inclined.
If deeply pondered, any of these categories will lead you to a state of wonder
and awe. They are clear enough to not require much elaboration, though I’ll
offer a little later on. You can just sit down and try to think what any one of
them means, and they will lead you straight to the Absolute itself.
can imagine that in ancient times the question of how to meditate on the
Absolute was hotly debated, between the two positions mentioned in verses 2-4.
Should the focus be on an object, or averted from anything tangible or
definable? An object could be ridiculed as being overly specific and therefore
limiting, but meditating on nothing could equally be ridiculed as wool
gathering. So which one is right?
around the time of the Gita Buddhism was being born, syndicating the side that
held meditation on the unmanifest superior. Of course, over time, and following
the trends of other religions, in Buddhism the Unmanifest became stereotyped as
various images, the most familiar being the depictions of the Buddha himself.
Early artists only dared to show a footprint or empty throne, but those were
too abstract to remain popular. Soon magnificent statues of the Buddha were
everywhere, designed to be worshipped as manifesting Earth’s most human god. At
the time of the Gita’s writing, however, such revisionism was still in the
Upanishads too are mostly, but not exclusively, in favor of the unmanifest,
even as it fills the manifest. But most regular folks tend to lean more towards
the manifest for their meditations, and prefer involvement with worldly
activities over solitary withdrawal. In ancient times, many people worshipped
creation itself, not any god necessarily, even though, again, it amounts to the
same thing on analysis. The Gita begins Chapter XII with a preference, but soon
embraces universal values dear to both camps. We can notice a sincere effort
throughout to bring both sides together in amity. The premise is that we are
all just trying to figure out what’s going on here, since it’s so amazing.
bottom line is that whichever attitude you adopt, as you penetrate deeper into
a contemplative understanding the more you realize they are the same in
essence. Strictly for example, let’s say you begin by worshipping the Absolute
as manifested in Jesus Christ. You start with all sorts of nice simple ideas
about what that means, a guy in a robe holding out his hand or prying open his
chest to reveal his heart, and you begin to address him as a person in your
prayers and in your everyday life. As you study and learn more, you discard
some notions as simplistic and replace them with upgraded ones. You hear other
people speak confidently of him, and sometimes it reinforces what you think and
sometimes you get the feeling that people are really gullible to have such
ideas. The concrete image begins to be more rarified and subtle. You ponder
more. If you are really devout, you may have encounters with something like an
image of Christ. After playing out this process for some years, you may begin
to realize that your images are wholly in your mind, and they are relatively
trite in comparison to the richness meant by the reality he proclaims. What you
seek is an unknown truth beyond the boundaries of what you can imagine based on
ordinary concepts. You still call on Christ, but now you set aside your images
and try to receive something directly from the Unknown itself.
if you follow the more philosophical path of relating to the Unknown as an
abstraction, your trajectory will follow essentially the same path. You begin
with an image of what “no image” would look like, and have a relationship with
it. As you refine your understanding, you become aware that imagery itself is
the block, and you strive to shed it for direct contact with Whatever It Is. No
matter whether you prefer to address something tangible or intangible, what
your spiritual development really amounts to is a process of opening up from a
small conception to an all-embracing one. Of course, if you become insistent on
guarding your entry-level conceptions, it is a simple matter to block all
spiritual growth, but those cases lie outside the thrust of a work designed as
a textbook for sincere seekers. The Gita was never meant to be an evangelical
any case, in both approaches of what may be called the original duality, the
Ground of existence is the same. There can only be a single truth at reality’s
core. The difference is that one person likes a friendly face on the search,
and another one doesn’t require it. It’s simply a matter of personal
preference. The line “they reach Me too” means that both paths are the same
from the absolutist standpoint. Both bring the devotee to the state of
realization. In the next verse, Krishna admits that his preference was based on
easiness, not on any metaphysical superiority.
will certainly have noticed that my commentary treats Krishna as a mystical
symbol rather than a concrete embodiment of an absolute principle. The Gita
does not support personalized deities, beyond the concessions made here. In
Chapter XV we will learn that the true “Krishna” is beyond both the manifested
and unmanifested aspects of the universe. Worship of a deity invariably
converts a transcendent reality into a conceptualized (and thereby manifested)
form. So, along with my gurus, I lean toward the more complex approach of
Krishna’s second option, of relating to the transcendent via the unmanifested.
Again, though, the more you think about the differences, the smaller they
does offer eight pithy aspects of the universe for the philosophically minded
seeker to meditate upon, which are wholly in keeping with the spirit of the
Upanishads. The first one, akshara,
even has its own chapter, number VIII. I’ll sketch out some sample ideas for
meditation on each in turn. Keep in mind that meditation is supposed to be
blissful. We do it because it brings us delight, and it should never be forced
or repetitive. The idea is to grow and gain insight, not to numb the mind with
stereotyped rituals. Depending on your personal inclinations you will be drawn
more to a scientific or a devotional shading, and that’s perfectly fine. Recall
IV, 11, which reads in part: “My very path it is that all men do tread from
every (possible) approach.”
terms Krishna mentions are ways to comprehend the incomprehensible, or to
otherwise merge with the blissful nature of the Absolute as it truly is. We can
even notice a subtle continuity from one to the next, showing that this is by
no means a random listing, but is extremely well thought out:
Science has postulated
that the universe was suddenly created out of nothing, and eventually it will
die out and at least be close to nothingness again. Is this logical, or must
there have been something before the Big Bang to provide the impetus for it? If
there is truly nothing, we should expect nothing to come of it. So what exactly
is this non-thing that persists above and beyond the coming and going of
temporal events, up to and including the birth and death of the whole universe?
What aspect of this universe, if any, stays with it for the entire cycle? No
self-respecting materialist should turn their back on questions like these, and
physicists are in fact beginning to address them now. In fact, at the end of
2010 the British mathematician Roger Penrose reported the first scientific
evidence of a universe predating the Big Bang, and the discovery was greeted
with widespread relief because everyone can now admit they knew all along that
a unique Big Bang was philosophically untenable.
related question is, how is such vast energy imparted that the working parts of
a universe can go on spinning energetically for at the very least trillions of
years? No known process can last anywhere near as long. What’s going on, that
the underpinning of everything seems to be continually renewed or never
depleted? Is the creation and dissolution of our universe simply one more
anthropomorphic projection of tepid minds? Try to grasp how, beneath all the
changing landscape, something permanent is providing the ground for it to take
place. What could that be?
Imagine, what would
something undefinable look like? How could you even conceive of it? Study how
your mind naturally takes a situation and gives it a definition, and how that
definition is invariably less than the actual situation. You will very quickly
grasp that, while intellectually satisfying, cutting life down to fit even the
best definition is very much a reduction and often a disfigurement. Knowing
this, you should find a way to be comfortable with life being greater than you
can ever conceive, and honor it for that ability. Definable things are subject
to opinions, pro and con, but indefinite things are not. The best we can do is
simply appreciate them.
The Gita frequently treats
the Absolute as Unmanifested and Imperishable together, since only things that
manifest can then perish, to return to their native state of being
unmanifested. The minute something Unmanifested takes a form of any kind, it
becomes definable by that form. Try to visualize being without form, and it
will lead you into the depths of your mind, at the very least. And always keep
in mind that all specific manifestations are not the Absolute, though they may
be said to be in it and of it. That’s the reason you’re not satisfied with gods
in the first place, right? They are too limited to be what some like to claim
they are. But an unmanifested god is identical with a natural principle or law,
and, like gravity, is unlimited.
It’s actually easier to
think of Nature as being all-pervasive than any god. Try as you might, a god
always has some sort of boundaries, but Nature is unbounded. Like atoms, or
better yet, the space between atoms, there is nowhere the Absolute is not.
you meditate on the necessary all-pervasiveness of the essential Substance of
the universe, realize that if it is everywhere it is also in you. The very
human tendency to think of gods or the Absolute itself as having an existence
far out in space somewhere is strictly a delusion. If it is everywhere, it must
be here also. Especially here, within one of the high points of local
evolution: namely you. As you start to grasp that you are the Absolute, your
life begins to normalize. You begin to realize you must do your very best to
love all aspects of life and enjoy whatever time you are allotted in it,
because the Absolute couldn’t possibly be interested in regimentation or
banality any more than you are. The energy that created the whole vast, amazing
game is coursing through your consciousness.
Zen-like exhortation, to think of something that isn’t a thought, or ponder the
imponderable. Yet, on reflection, thoughts have definite forms similar to
material objects. One of the great paradoxes is that we have to use thoughts to
go beyond thinking. If we try to grasp something that is all-pervasive, for
instance, we will be lifted out of our normal channels of conceptualization.
Yet if we don’t think at all, we will remain very limited. We need to have a
fully developed capacity to think, and then use it to go beyond what we know,
to step outside of thought forms. Probably this is the point of many traditional
bhakti practices: to use an intense furor to temporarily sweep away the thought
processes. But the same can be accomplished quietly and peacefully, sitting
alone on a seat, and there is significantly less danger of it becoming a way to
reinforce and amplify our ignorance.
Life in its greatest
sense is real. Everything about it is real. The universe is undeniably
existent. So it is a wonder that humans are prone to curse the unreality of the
world, while getting so confused by it. We should look to the solid basis of
the vast, swirling maelstrom of which we are the tiniest part. When we sit on our
seat and let go of our petty thoughts, we become firmly established in our true
there is a measure of illusion in everything. Whenever something is produced
out of nothing, it is bound to seem a little bit insubstantial, deep down. But
everyone agrees there is definitely something
going on, and the joy of existence is to explore what that is. Ultimate truth
is not possessed by any illusory item per se, but it is nonetheless real. We
can’t do better that recall Krishna’s presentation of the mystery in IX, 4-6:
Me all this world is pervaded, My form unmanifested; all beings have existence
in Me and I do not have existence in them. And further, beings do not exist in
Me; behold My status as a divine mystery; further, Myself remaining that urge
behind beings, I bear them but do not exist in them either. As the great
(expanse of) air filling all space has its basis in pure extension, thus you
should understand all existences as having their basis in Me.
Movement makes up the measurable
universe, the part of the whole that science focuses on. Our sustenance as
moving beings depends on consuming other moving entities. But what if the
unmoving part was also important, maybe transcendentally important? Ancient
science postulates that an unmoving solidity supports and upholds the movement
of manifested entities strutting and fretting their hour upon the stage. In
fact, it is the stage. Is it possible
that we are focusing on the wrong things, and excluding something really
essential? Could actors act if there were no stage to stand upon? Pondering the
immovable aspect of the universe brings the mind to a similar depth to the
other meditations Krishna is suggesting.
Constancy is similar to
immobility, but it adds the time element to the former’s spatial orientation.
We are continuously supplied with all our basic needs of life, and this alone
is a great miracle. If we were nothing more than fluctuating beings in an
absolutely random universe, we would not survive for long. Even beyond our
physical needs, we are supplied with interesting situations and dear friends,
gorgeous entertainment and the possibility of overcoming sorrow. There is no
end to the information our minds can take delight in when we examine our world.
Instead of being like spoiled children and going off in a huff because we
aren’t getting everything we want handed to us on a silver platter, we can look
for the constant support upwelling at all times to keep us flying high. We
should cultivate an attitude of appreciation rather than dissatisfaction or
you take all these cosmic meditations together, they are as good or better than
any mythology or religious belief system. At the same time, the half-baked
speculations that pass for materialism these days fall far short of their
potential as liberating insights. Happily, the forefront of science is
discarding them and standing on the verge of the wonder embedded in the very
essence of a universe pulsing with life. And when taken to the depth the Gita is
advocating, all the various approaches turn out to be different ways to
understand the same spectacular mystery.
difficulty of those whose relational minds are set on the Unmanifested is
greater, for the way of the Unmanifested is very hard for the embodied to
sum up this section, Arjuna has asked Krishna how to integrate the vision he
just had of the Absolute with his life. Should he worship the manifest or the
unmanifest? Hindus tend to work more with the manifest and Buddhists the unmanifest,
though the distinction is certainly not as clear as it was when the Gita was
penned, long before those nineteenth century terms (Hinduism and Buddhism) had even
been imagined. In a similar schism of a common root, modern Christianity leans
heavily on literal imagery, while Islam decries any fixed conceptualization.
Krishna says here to go for the manifest, mainly because it’s easier. It is so
easy to love your friend, your pet, your spouse, or your home, and much more
subtle and difficult to have the same profound experiences of love in relation
to what you can’t see, hear or touch. The intellect is forever bringing up
substitute images to clothe the unmanifest, and they run the gamut from dry and
lifeless to luscious and enchanting. Getting past that is very difficult, but
if you can it’s just as good as overtly and equally loving your neighbor and
your enemy. Nitya Chaitanya Yati puts this nicely in his booklet on bhakti:
You don’t have to think of a
Supreme God sitting somewhere in a far-off place and of one day reaching him so
that bhakti can begin. No, bhakti is operating all the time. The very person
next to you now is a symbol of the Unknown whom you are seeking. If you can see
in this person the manifestations of truth, the manifestations of beauty, the
manifestations of goodness—-to that extent you are moving towards fulfillment.
Your realization is at hand, not as a distant promise but as what is presented
here and now. (14)
are actually more akin to the formless void than to the loveable aspects of the
world around us, though we often reverse them in our minds. Despite people
having fairly definite images for their favorite god, any gods there might be are
in fact noncorporeal. Metaphysical. It is not too much of a leap to realize they
exist primarily if not entirely in the imagination of their devotees.
world is full of people who love the divine simply and without pretense. They
may worship a garish or weird image of their favorite deity, but it is not
necessarily idol worship. The idol is a reminder of the love radiating to them
at all times from the core of the universe. They may be scorned by
materialists, but they may well be more pure of heart than those who scorn
them. No one has a lock on how the universe works, and the barren philosophy of
negation without any unifying principle to replace what is negated is
responsible for devastation on all levels: personal, cultural and planetary. On
the other hand, loving gestures reciprocated by loving gods have stimulated
much of the kindness and care that perennially nurtures the world. So perhaps
the derision is misplaced. For an intellectually-minded person, such simple
gestures are pretty much out of reach anyway. For them, Bhakti Yoga is an
excellent means to restore the purity of an honest way of relating to the
course, there are those who are much happier screening out the world around
them and diving deep in their search. If their preference is in tune with their
dharma, and is more than the fantasy of a damaged ego in need of healing, there
is no problem. For that matter, if healing is not available for a damaged
ego—-and it often isn’t—-then withdrawal into a cave or other remote fastness
can serve that type of seeker very well.
6 & 7) But those who worship Me, renouncing all actions
in Me, regarding Me supreme, meditating on Me by that yoga exclusive of all
for them whose minds have entered into Me, I become ere long
the savior out of the ocean of death and repeated cyclic existences.
6-10 are an elaboration of the highest teaching of the Gita, as stated in IX,
34 and XVIII, 65. Both those verses begin: “Become one in mind with Me; be
devoted to Me; sacrifice to Me; bow down to Me.” They end slightly differently,
first: “unifying thus yourself, you shall surely come to Me, your supreme Goal
none other than Me.” Secondly: “you shall come to Me alone; I promise you, in
truth, you are dear to Me.” In the first case the merger is seen from the side
of the aspirant; in the later case it comes from the endearment of the
Absolute. In both cases there is a final unity of the seeker with the Absolute
like a drop of rain falling into the ocean, or the ocean pouring into a
Gita being fond of graded series, Krishna now spells out these different ways
to stay attuned to the Absolute, particularly after a cosmic vision of
reacquaintance with it such as Arjuna has just experienced. The correspondences
are: verses 6 and 7, become one with Me; verse 8, be devoted to Me; verse 9,
sacrifice to Me; and verse 10, bow down to Me. Verse 11 is what to do if all
first way is to maintain the contact directly, as stated in verses 6 and 7.
Next best is to become intellectually absorbed in understanding the Absolute
(v.8). If you can’t retain the mental vision, the next recommendation is to
practice yoga (v.9) to return to it. Remember the Gita’s yoga is a vast and
open system of uniting the mind in neutrality, not some kind of exercise. If
you are too flaky to follow that way, then dedicate your life as an instrument
of the divine (v.10): always imagining the largest possible coherent analysis
in every action you undertake will raise you to perfection. But if you can’t
even be bothered to do that, at the very least cast yourself on the mercy of
God (v.11). This is the modern Krishna consciousness and Christian model, among
others, including the twelve step program for substance abuse. You can’t do it
yourself, you are not good enough. Only God is good enough. So you practice
self-abnegation in hopes that there is more than fantasy in your picture of the
divine. Notably, this is the only program for which Krishna provides no
assurance of a successful outcome. Since the Gita is about being fully alive
and free, it should come as no surprise that such attitudes are foreign to it.
Even though, as we know, people surrender to the Gita or something similar all
the time. Hey, it might work. Maybe. Anything is possible. Krishna is willing
to keep an open mind about it. From what I’ve seen it’s a very perilous path
though. You can as easily get stuck in negativity through self-denial as you
can through rampant egomania.
your path, the Gita next sums up the state of mind that is best for attaining
the Absolute, in verses 13-20. Firstly, having no hatred toward ALL creatures,
then being friendly and compassionate, and so on down the line. The kind of
worship that imagines “we” are good and “they” are bad will bar the door to the
Absolute as long as it is practiced. It is utterly self-defeating, what Nataraja
Guru called a one-legged argument, bound to topple over.
within the present two verses, the Gita presents us with a graded series,
beginning with the best option where all the energies of the seeker are
directed toward merger with the Divine to the degree that the Absolute and the
individual are identical. The seeker puts all their effort into achieving
union, while the Absolute embraces them with showers of loving grace.
stated in the introduction, bhakti is often translated as devotion, but at
heart it means conjunction with light. Becoming conjoined with the light of the
Absolute is not different from what this pair of verses describes in detail.
The specific instance in question is the disciple becoming united with the guru,
who is literally the remover of darkness. When darkness is removed, the light
multi-pronged strategy is recommended here for the disciple, including “worship,”
upasana. The word has the same root, upa,
as Upanishad, which means to sit
near a teacher to receive instruction. The Gita’s picture of worship is of a
disciple sitting near a guru and listening to their words of wisdom with
profound trust and intelligent attention. It may also reflect a range of values
even extending to flower offerings and religious rituals, but at the core it’s
about the bipolarity between teacher and taught in the context of wisdom. The
Upanishads—-for instance, the first part of the Kena Upanishad—-are very clear
that any manifested thing that is worshipped is not the Absolute. One must rise
above the known and even the unknown to enter into it.
all actions in Me” means that actions are done for the greatest good and not
for selfish benefit. The yogi even gives up the very thought that “I am doing
such and such,” and simply allows the action to unfold, confident that
unselfishness and connection with the Absolute go hand in hand. Narayana Guru
pointedly makes this attitude the centerpiece of his teaching on ethics. In
verse 23 of his Hundred Verses of Self-Instruction, he avers: “For the sake of
another, day and night performing action, having given up self-centered
interests, the compassionate person acts; the self-centered man is wholly
immersed in necessity, performing unsuccessful actions for himself alone.”
society is based on a premise that selfishness is the optimal motivator for
human beings. While it’s hard to deny that it is a powerful motivator, the
devastation it wreaks is becoming more evident with each passing day. It is to
be hoped that the substantial body of people who comprehend the value of
pulling together unselfishly will yet have its hour in the sun.
Me supreme” is a technique for mitigating the sense of agency in the three
dualistic attitudes, to wit “I am the doer,” “I am the knower,” and “I am the
enjoyer.” Visualizing the Supreme as doer, knower and enjoyer expands the field
of experience from that of an isolated individual to the broadest possible amplitude.
It is absolutely essential that the Supreme be thought of as sane and
beneficent. If it is visualized as jealous, angry, vengeful, punitive and so
on, it leads to disastrous consequences. Whether the divine is a reflection of
us or we are a reflection of the divine, somehow we unconsciously exemplify
what we believe.
on Me by that yoga exclusive of all else,” of course, is the practice taught
throughout the Gita of one-pointed dialectic thinking. Paradoxically, such
exclusive yoga is all-inclusive, since the Absolute contains everything in the
mysterious way described in IX, 4-6. The “all else” to be excluded includes
confusion, distraction, muddle-headedness, and so on: all the blocks to
goal of these practices is to unify yourself. If you are conceiving of a god
and you as two separate entities you are not unified. It’s a way of thinking you
have to get over.
act of becoming fully united with the Absolute extricates you from the cloud of
confusion that had previously dominated. A small nod to the time factor is
included here, in the words “ere long.” This makes it sound as if the Guru
saves you at the end of a process, but that’s not quite right. In the nondual
conception of the Gita, the seeker has simply evolved to become unified.
Confusion and so on are the result of dualistic thinking, and they
automatically dissipate when a unitive attitude is attained.
is the only mention of salvation as such in the entire Gita. Since there is no
damnation, there is no need for salvation as an antidote. But since Krishna is
offering himself here as a manifestation to be worshipped, it is not logically
inconsistent for him to be viewed as a savior in that context.
impact of regaining your divine heritage of joy is initially overwhelming. In
Chapter XI, Arjuna was terrified of the experience and begged for a return to
normalcy. It takes a little time to adjust to the new outlook and calm down.
Only after incorporating the mystical “onrushing wave” into the psyche can you
settle into the bliss of peaceful enlightenment. Hence the savior aspect
emerges “ere long” from the chaos occasioned by the sudden flood of wisdom.
your mind in Me only, let your higher reason enter into Me; you shall without
doubt thereafter live in Me.
8 equates with the phrase “be devoted to Me.” The popular image of bhakti as
mad uncontrolled dancing and chanting or fervent outbursts of ecstatic loving
sentimentality is not found in the Gita. This secondary stage is for those who
can’t quite put their whole personality into merger with the divine. Instead,
an intelligent effort is made to fully grasp the Absolute, with all its
nuances. The Gita calls this a wisdom sacrifice. Vedanta philosophy is filled
with insights of experienced wisdom sacrificers that can help seekers avoid
many pitfalls and misdirected efforts. Anyone’s initial efforts are bound to be
tainted with some misguided notions that are serious stumbling blocks in their
own right. One of the main uses for the intellect is to figure out the
difference between helpful ideas and those that hinder.
says here that intellectual endeavors can be very successful in liberating the
thoughtful seeker. To me, this has always been what makes Vedanta stand out.
Many of the problems of life are the result of cloudy thinking, and they can be
resolved by mental clarity. It’s as if we reach adulthood tied up in knots, and
Vedanta is the science of untying them.
the old Western movies, one scene always had the bad guys tying the good guys
up to a chair or desk while they made their escape from justice. The heroes had
to struggle mightily until they could reach the knots with their fingertips,
and then oh so gradually work them loose. Then they would jump up with ropes
flying every which way and rush out the door to save the farm or stop the
train. Silly as those “oaters” are, it makes a good spiritual metaphor.
knots, the first one is often the toughest, and once it is untied the rope
becomes loose enough to whip through the rest. The mind is like that too. We
are perpetually in a state of traumatized denial, which ties us in knots and
bars our freedom, and we can’t make progress until we shake it off. We have to
learn to face ourselves as we really are, instead of how we would like to
appear. Vedanta appeals to our inner being through logic and common sense to
persuade us to overcome our obstacles. It isn’t based on faith or threats, but
on intelligence and careful observation.
wonderful visual image of what it feels like to be liberated from the ties that
bind may be found at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tcXU7G6zhjU.
Some researchers came upon a humpback whale that was totally immobilized by
fishing nets, and upon the point of death. Ever so carefully the crew cut the nets
and tugged them off. Once the whale was free, it swam away to a safe distance
and began just about the most wonderful display of grateful exuberance ever
filmed, leaping in the air over and over in an excess of joyful release. It
reminds us that conjunction with light is identical to conjunction with life:
bhakti is the bliss of being fully alive and free of fetters.
you are unable to fix your thoughts steadily on Me, then by means of unitive
ascent seek to reach Me.
we have the elaboration of “sacrifice to Me” as unitive ascent through
dedicated search. Many seekers of truth need and want a program to follow in
order to feel close to the numinous. They are not capable of the initiative
required by the first two cases of merger and intellectual inquiry. They
believe in something, but are not
sure enough of themselves to find their own way. So there are many stepwise
paths available for them. Most of what is called yoga in the modern world is in
this category. Buddhism has many carefully worked out programs of study or
practice to attain specific goals. Though somewhat clumsy in respect of
attaining unity with the Absolute, these can be perfectly suitable as beginning
stages of study. While charlatans thrive on such trusting and dedicated souls, their
openness is appreciated by honest guides as well. Na´ve energy can be directed
into very helpful endeavors such as caring for those in need, building houses,
tending soup kitchens, and the like.
four stages of Krishna’s initiation also loosely correspond to the four varnas,
popularly known as castes. The brahmin or dedicated mystical seeker wants to
become wholeheartedly united with the Absolute, while the kshatriya or
philosopher is happiest being intellectually united with it. The vaishya or
managerial type, corresponding to the stage of the present verse, efficiently
incorporates the principles of the Absolute into everyday life. They are the
most practical, the ones who manage the ashram, or who bring food supplies to
the hungry, clothe the naked, and build shelters for the homeless. The modern
world of practicality prizes the vaishyas the most. The sudra, the follower,
bows down to the Absolute in the sense of doing the legwork, such as growing
the food to be shared with hungry people, delivering the goods, etc. Driving a
truck full of vegetables to the soup kitchen may not be considered particularly
spiritual by some people, but it is equally essential to the entire enterprise.
Krishna reminds us that this kind of activity is the most eminently suitable
for certain types of people, and these are invaluable and just as honorable as
any of the other types. All the other programs are in a sense dependent on the
disciples may initially be treated as sudras by gurus, to be employed in
whatever the guru sees as necessary for the maintenance of the ashram or the
local community. As they gain expertise and wisdom, they can be promoted to managers,
who may become philosophers, and who may, in due course, become united with the
Absolute in the purest sense at the terminus of their discipleship. So these
“castes,” if we should even employ the term, are meant to be flexible and
temporary, more like stages in a process of unfoldment. They fit well into a
stepwise conception that is very much in keeping with the practical
you happen to be incapable even of practice, then become one whose every action
belongs to Me, the Supreme; even doing work for My sake you shall attain to
verse corresponds to the phrase “bow down to Me.” Krishna spells it out here:
even doing work for the sake of the Absolute can bring perfect harmony. And
never forget, we are all the Absolute. Work is an integral and essential part
of life that helps to keep us balanced and sane.
learned earlier that wisdom and action are not two separate things. Only simple-minded
people think they are different (V, 4 & 5). Repetitive work can be used as
a harmonizing meditation practice. Certainly we all have to clean the house and
work to support ourselves. It is a tragedy to think of these things as
unspiritual, as blocks to proper living. All aspects of life can be
spiritualized, converting drudgery into ecstasy, or at least into a time for meaningful
verse should teach us to not disparage menial tasks and those who perform them
at all. Every aspect of life is spiritual. It’s not so much what you do, it’s
how you do it that counts. From a yogic standpoint, looking down on anything is
divisive and thereby counterproductive. Instead we are to spiritualize every
aspect of our lives, intelligently and compassionately.
work yogically, we should remember, means merging fully with the activity. If
we are busy thinking, “I’m doing this as a step to enlightenment,” or “I’m
being good,” or “Now I’m worshipping so-and-so,” or any of the other ways of
rationalizing what we do, it knocks the spirituality right out of it. The ego
is busy affixing the territory to itself that should be left untethered. Once
our course of action has been chosen, either by intelligent selection or fate,
we should throw ourselves into it wholeheartedly and without possessiveness.
you are unable to do even this, then seek refuge (for your individuality) in My
unitive Being, renouncing the benefits of all actions, as one of controlled
easiest possible approach to the Absolute, if you are incapable of any directed
spiritual effort at all, is to follow a simple formula, any formula, that lifts
you out of an egoistic obsession with your self at the expense of others.
Belief in God or godlike beings as saviors falls into this category. The Gita’s
favorite ideal is to not worry about the results of your action, but act for
the sake of the joy of being alive. Worrying about the fruits ushers anxiety,
shame and uncertainty into the Garden of Eden. In lieu of active decision-making,
you can just fall back on tried and true maxims and try to hold to them.
this last verse in the series should be paraphrased “Abandon yourself in Me.”
Even if you have no energy to dedicate to a search for truth, you can at least
rest assured that you are a spark of the Absolute. Doing so assuages the
despair of feeling dissociated from life, so there is less need to long for the
benefits of actions, which can never satisfy anyone anyway. Future payoffs are
too remote, though we are often lured away from present happiness in hopes of attaining
critical point that makes even this simplest option a challenge is that it has
to be a wholesale abandonment. A small amount followed by endless second
guessing or regrets will bring us to a miserable stuck condition. Most educated
humans are not capable of releasing their sense of self to another entity,
imaginary or otherwise, barring some kind of psychological disaster. We carry
so many built in stumbling blocks that we wind up trying to suppress our
intelligence with drugs or other stupefying behaviors and just go in circles.
Needless to say this is a failed policy, despite its popularity. If you can
sincerely surrender your whole being to the Absolute, go for it, but if you
hold anything back it will just be a farce and a disaster. You are better off
to choose one of the more engaging options listed earlier.
general, surrender to an absolute principle for guidance should make life easy
and reasonably satisfying. Unfortunately, it is more common to surrender to a
power position masquerading as an absolute principle, which produces
enslavement and degradation. Therefore the Gita prefers that we become
intelligently engaged in living our lives, and not allow ourselves to be taken
self-control mentioned here means restraining selfish urges. This is the most simplified
spiritual effort of all. Our so-called animal instincts are based on purely
selfish considerations, and they must be tempered with a wisdom that addresses
all aspects of the situation. Any observer of the human condition should be
able to discern that when people act unselfishly their communities thrive, and
when they act selfishly their communities disintegrate. Stepping out of the
small ‘s’ self and into the capital ‘S’ Self called the Absolute can and should
be practiced at every level of life, beginning with the immediate environment
of friends and family and extending to the whole world. Fear is all that is
holding us back; the antidote is bravery. It takes courage to act unselfishly,
to invite the world outside our comfort zone in.
human race has actually been toying with self-annihilation for many decades, as
the logical end of selfishness. It seems we would rather destroy ourselves and
God’s green earth rather than convert to unselfish actions based on wisdom.
Sadly, those who wield the most power generally have the biggest stake in this
suicidal game. It has turned out to be very simple for vested interests to
perpetuate the destructive behaviors that keep them in the upper berths of a
sinking ship. They can successfully engineer the fruits of actions for their
personal benefit, but at a stupendous long-term cost.
rich grasp harder—-much harder—-than the poor for their greater-than-fair share
of fruits. The drive for wealth emerges from a tremendous sense of insecurity.
I often recall my multi-millionaire uncle, who took me out to lunch one time as
his guest and then “allowed” me to pay the bill. I was employed as a
firefighter and penniless at the end of every month, but I could tell it was
another feather in his cap to consider he had gained ten dollars in the deal.
Never mind that he came off as little more than a brute. It certainly taught me
that generosity was not a natural consequence of wealth. Later I became aware that
no values are consequent to wealth, they are consequential to the development
of a spiritual attitude that is very much independent of financial stature,
though perhaps more likely to be stimulated by the pressures of insecurity.
indeed is knowledge than practice; than knowledge, meditation is superior; than
meditation, renunciation of the benefit of action; after renunciation—peace.
summary, the previous sequence (become one with Me; be devoted to Me; sacrifice
to Me; and bow down to Me) is presented in reverse order here, except
renunciation of the benefit of action has been moved from the lowest to the
second highest category, possibly to fit the meter. Renunciation is a technique
that can be applied at every level of existence, as long as it is properly
any form of activity by rote is deadening to the soul, unless it is accompanied
by understanding. If someone knows why they are asked to do something, it makes
all the difference. It doesn’t matter whether the practice meant here is yoga
practice or employment or just attending to the details of being alive, all are
enlivened by intelligent participation. Practice without awareness is simply
bowing down or knuckling under, but doing it intelligently is sacrificial in
the broadest sense. For instance, digging dirt gets boring pretty fast, but if
you know you’re digging a trench to lay pipe for a water line to your village,
it helps a lot. It gives the task meaning. Being aware of the big picture is
not the same as longing for fruits, either. The Gita is not trying to rule out
having goals, only being dragged out of our normal state of happiness on their
account. Goals motivate us, and unity with the Absolute is in a sense a goal,
as we have noted in X, 18. The rule of thumb might be expressed as it’s okay to
use goals to overcome inertia, but once you get going you can maintain an open
attitude about what may happen next, and doing so invites the involvement of
innumerable unknown potentials.
also has its limitations. It is meditation that puts it in context, and also
stabilizes it. Individual items of knowledge can just be a burden unless they
are fitted into a coherent scheme of correlation, and this is where meditation
or contemplation comes in. The specialization of knowledge of the modern day
alongside political propaganda has led to rampant dissociation from meaning,
with a number of unfortunate aftereffects, from personal confusion to global
devastation. An accelerated culture doesn’t take the time to reflect. The
modern world is witnessing a disintegration of meaning as the old paradigms are
exposed as arbitrary, but with nothing of value being mooted to replace them,
beyond slogans and sound bites. Mental chaos leads to isolation and random acts
of violence. Yoga cures these ills, from the individual outward to the
environment. The stabilization of knowledge in meaning is related to devotion
to high values, so meditation here corresponds to “be devoted to Me.”
finally, as the Gita has preached since the second chapter, relinquishing the
benefits of action allows for better concentration on unitive activity. If you
desire to complete your meditation because you will then become enlightened,
you aren’t really doing meditation at all. You need to put all such
considerations out of your mind in order to be completely present in whatever
you are doing. When this is accomplished, you naturally “become one with the
Absolute.” That thou art, tat tvam asi,
and all that. The result is peace, or the “lonely final happiness” of XIV, 27.
is the normative notion here, the absolute principle in which all the factors
listed converge. If what you are doing brings peace, you are doing it right. If
it makes you agitated because you need outside factors to be altered to suit
your prejudices, for example, you haven’t studied your Gita enough!
verse is reminiscent of one from the Tao Te Ching, by Lao Tzu. From Gia-fu
When the great Tao is forgotten,
Kindness and morality arise.
When wisdom and intelligence are born,
The great pretense begins.
When there is no peace within the family,
Filial piety and devotion arise.
When the country is confused and in chaos,
Loyal ministers appear. (v.18)
13 & 14) He who has no hatred toward all creatures, who
is also friendly and compassionate, who is free from possessiveness, and
egoism, who is equalized in pain and pleasure, and forgiving,
such a unitively disciplined one, who is always contented,
self-controlled, firmly resolved, whose mind and reason are dedicated to Me—he,
My devotee, is dear to Me.
begin a series of verses delineating what is particularly dear to the Absolute,
in other words, states reflecting union with the Absolute or particularly
conducive to union. Nowadays we would say something like they are sign of
mental health: these are the indicators of having our act together, of keeping
our cool, being settled in our understanding. This section marks the end of the
middle third of the Gita, focusing primarily on the Absolute, and begins a
transition to the final third where the attunement with it is brought to bear
on our everyday life. From now on Krishna will present a fascinating and
little-known framework to help Arjuna become solidly established in the
excellent states of mind that are listed here.
the attitudes he mentions are generally the outcome of an equalized, globally
inclusive awareness. Applying them separately as tasks or rules to be followed
would be tedious and clumsy. But when a vision of the Absolute has been
experienced, they are a natural state of mind to effortlessly remain in. We
should recall II, 59: “Even the residual relish [for ordinary dualistic mentality]
reverts on the One Beyond being sighted.”
worthwhile to take a brief look at the seemingly obvious categories given in
very first point is that a yogi must not harbor animosity toward any creature.
It never fails to astonish how angry people can get over their beliefs. The
list of stupidities mouthed by those who consider themselves devout would fill
volumes per day. Probably to head this off, Krishna makes an unambiguous
statement: you are attuned to the Absolute if you have no feelings of hatred to
anyone and are naturally friendly and compassionate. We can certainly grasp
that their opposite numbers are disqualifying emotions. Lest we forget, Krishna
hits it hard in Chapter XVI, calling those who hate the worst of men.
adults harbor immature feelings of anger and hatred, they prefer to dress them
up in a fashion that lends them an appearance of legitimacy. Thus gods and such
are invoked who (surprise!) have the very same biases as the person hurling the
calumny. Usually there is no awareness of the hypocrisy or projection on the
part of the devotee, either. Hostile emotions easily erase common sense. Part
of their power lies in convincing us we are completely legitimate in holding
them. As Saint Francis de Sales (1567-1622) expressed it, “There was never an
angry man that thought his anger unjust.”
is a second level where intelligent people feel they are justified in hating
other people: because they are “bad.” Not knowing the secrets of yoga, they
don’t realize that polarizing always makes the schism between good and evil,
which feed off each other, more irreparable. The solution is to move toward
neutrality, not toward self-righteousness, in order to mitigate evil, which is
always relative no matter how extreme it appears to be. There can be no such
thing as absolute evil or absolute good. The harder we combat evil the greater
it becomes, because it is the combating itself that is the evil.
there are haters moved by blind frustration, and those who add to that an inviolable
intellectual justification. This is one more case where the Isa Upanishad’s
truth is apparent:
Into blind darkness enter they
That worship ignorance;
Into darkness greater than that, as it were, they
That delight in knowledge. (v. 9)
everyone had a benchmark value that hatred and similar states are on their face
opposed to spirituality, we could begin to reduce the corrosive tension these
emotions engender. It’s so simple! And yet, nearly impossible. Like the
Absolute itself, its achievement is both very near and very far away. It seems
hatred is never far from the human mind. Listen for its mild form, in the
endless complaining that so many prattle on with all day long, as though it
justified something. Krishna assures us hatred in all forms is the first thing
we have to get over.
Guru has translated mamah as
possessiveness, while it is usually rendered more literally as “mineness.” But
the next term, egotism, covers the same territory as the sense of what is mine,
so his nuance is eminently justified. When we want to possess something for
ourselves we unconsciously set up a division between what is ours and what
isn’t. The awareness of division inescapably draws us away from the unity of
the Absolute, which is precisely what Arjuna is striving to preserve. Therefore
he has to stop thinking in terms of what is or is not his. The wise are just as
happy that someone else owns something as that they do, because they identify
with the whole.
is not actually the same as ego, though there is some overlap. It’s more of an
animating principle of the ego. Instinctive self-preservation is deeply
embedded in our psyches, and as such is very difficult to completely dispense
with. Only an overwhelming blast such as Arjuna has just had can do the trick.
Absent that, we have generous maxims to practice that can help wean us away
from possessiveness, such as those mentioned in the comments on the first
spiritual reason for de-emphasizing the ego is that it myopically identifies
itself with objects of interest, setting up a dual perception of subject and
object. One can hardly function without this, but it is nonetheless a block to
remaining in a state of unity. Vedanta asserts there is only consciousness,
within which there is a certain topology that provides the basis for making
distinctions. We are trying to retain the sense of oneness and carry its
blessings over into everyday life, hoping that it is not essential to abandon
unity and cast ourselves wholly at the mercy of duality. And it is possible,
but only if we downplay the divisive aspects of our psyche.
ego thinks, “I know,” “I perceive,” “I want,” “I do,” and all the rest. The
sense of wanting to possess is a secondary effect of separating ourselves from
the whole. We push something away and then we desire to get it back. Thus intentional
possessiveness is a subset of ego. Going beyond it is an impossible hurdle for
most people, who are perfectly convinced that, “Of course I do. Of course I
know. Of course I need.”
ego is in charge of our preferences, directing us to move toward pleasure and
away from pain. This would be fine except that many very good things have
elements of pain in them, while many pleasurable items are dangerous or
unhealthy. Pleasure, it turns out, is not a proper basis for decision making.
So the advice to equalize pain and pleasure so they don’t pervert our
intelligence covers the whole gamut of ego preferences and is extremely
readers of the Gita imagine that this chapter at least endorses the frenetic
forms of religious worship that are called bhakti in India. Yet religious
ecstasy induced by various types of strenuous behavior actually presses the
pleasure pedal to excess. The high involved is like any intense exercise,
pushing the body to pour out endorphins, followed by an aftermath of ego
gratification and subsequent deflation. It’s like a full-body orgasm. While it may
be a lot of fun, it is not what the Gita recommends by any means. Here highs
and lows are to be offset with one another to achieve a steadiness that attains
the Absolute. It is a quiet intensity, very subtle, with little or no outward
who does not disturb (the peace of) the world and (whose peace) is not
disturbed by the world, and who is free from exaggerations of joy, hate and
fear—he too is dear to Me.
we have one of the key ideas of the Gita, that spirituality is not a matter of
having an impact on the world, other than possibly fostering its inherent
peacefulness. Nor is it a product of any way that the world impacts us. So many
take up the cross of living a spiritual life, and then define it in terms of
how you go about changing the world. Often there are tragic repercussions. War
and genocide are ways to “improve the world.” True spirituality is about
changing ourselves, which is the only practice that has a lasting positive
impact. Sadly, many people wage war on themselves and consider it a way to
improve the world also. Soon they become major misery makers for everyone around
them. It turns out that our world is a reflection of who we are, albeit a
reflection that most of the time is very difficult to discern and not the least
bit obvious. When we are attuned to the Absolute we become linked with the
natural order, which is perfect as it is, as opposed to the separatist
tendencies of an ego-driven individual or group.
like Radhakrishnan’s version of the first phrase: “He from whom the world does
not shrink, and who does not shrink from the world.” Everyone else says basically
the same thing as Nataraja Guru. But shrinking from the world or not recalls
Arjuna’s original urge to flee from the battle. Plus, when we are out of
balance, the world sometimes seems to reel away from us nightmarishly, as
though all its good parts at least are avoiding us on purpose. In the house of
mirrors that is consciousness, the two movements occur in tandem. Yoga brings
us to a state of equilibrium where we are in the world and able to remain
completely steady. As early as II, 48 we were told, “In sameness consists the
three examples of emotional over-reaction mentioned in the second half of the
verse—exaggerations of joy, hate and fear—are definitely related to disturbing
the peace of the world of the first half.
of joy” that we are asked to be free of would aptly characterize the well-known
forms of bhakti worship, which aim to achieve transcendence by pushing ecstasy
to the limit. In younger people who are full of energy, energetic approaches to
the Absolute are reasonably appropriate. As we age we tend to move from crude
action to more subtle contemplation, from agitation to calmness. There is
nothing wrong with following a program that appeals to you, so long as it is
not divisive. But humans being the frail creatures we are, getting high tends
to unleash monsters from the id, that is, ugly urges lurking out of sight in
the unconscious. I have often observed athletes in the midst of their sport,
for instance, being very hostile and judgmental, and even coming to blows,
because their intensity erases their inhibitions. Later they usually regret
their hotheaded actions. Likewise, religious revivalists can be whipped to a
lynching hysteria in the midst of a sermon on brotherly love. Sadly, we don’t
often hear of them regretting their foul deeds, but they should.
have often regretted that the intensity of the antiwar and civil rights
movement I was a part of in the 1960s, coupled as it was with marvelous
spiritualizing drug highs and over-exaggerated optimism, energized the much
better organized rightwing reaction that has gotten such a firm grip on
America’s civil life at present. Now we can only hope that by living and
teaching peace we can make amends by rekindling a more balanced form of
the word amarsha can mean both hate
and, as Nataraja Guru has it, haste. While editing his Gita commentary, I
wondered if it was a misprint, so I checked, and it’s also correct. Probably he
did it because hate was mentioned already. The word does mean hate, but it also
has the sense of impatience, which can lead to anger. So haste and hate are
somewhat related. We have all probably experienced how when we’re in a hurry
our temper tends to be much shorter than it is when we are calm and relaxed.
That would give a very good idea of what Vyasa has in mind here. Nonetheless, I
have gone along with the more typical translation, hate, and altered the Guru’s
translation by subtracting one letter.
means patience or endurance, so amarsha correspondingly signifies
impatience or volatility. Since the advice is phrased as a double negative, it
is clear that the point is to not overreact to events but to sit with them
quietly and calmly until you grasp their entire purport. Be patient. Take your
time. There is an old adage, “Marry in haste and repent at leisure,” which
carries the same sense as marsha if
we take the act of marriage to stand for actions in general. And there is another
from Thailand: “Life is short, so we should act very, very… slowly.”
how is it that impatience takes us away from attunement with the Absolute?
Since patience can be a form of defeatism, perhaps impatience reflects a more
wide-awake mentality? Does it have to be the face of hatred?
impatience is hastier than patience. If we examine our impatience it invariably
springs from some tension in ourselves. There is usually an outside trigger,
but it releases our own preexisting exasperation and frustration. One of the
first things a yogi learns is that permitting our happiness to be based on external
events is an invitation to misery. The yogi’s call is to be strongly grounded
in the Absolute, so that the ups and downs of life, which for the most part are
perfectly normal and predictable, don’t knock us for a loop. They are more like
storm waves crashing on solid rocks.
third affliction mentioned in this verse, fear, is a state of mind we always
seek to quell. Yet propagandists successfully use it as a technique to drive
people where they want them to go. The shadow side of our mind seems to take a
perverse glee in abandoning itself to intense emotions that temporarily
short-circuit the rational faculty, and so we willingly go along with negative
impulses if certain reservations can be overcome by persuasion. Many psychological
studies have been done to gauge the impact of crowd behavior on normally sober
citizens, and it’s scarily significant. People permit themselves to do all
sorts of vicious actions if they feel they have the approval of a peer group.
This is because normally we merely repress fear because we are afraid to face
it squarely and properly defang it.
best defense against all forms of unhealthy exaggeration is to train ourselves
to examine situations coolly and intelligently, and not to give in to impulsive
reactions. Opening ourselves to the onrushing internal wave of the Absolute
requires a relinquishment that is curiously similar to abandoning ourselves to
outside influences. It is quite possible that a lot of the histrionics of the
modern political battlefields at least began as attempts to become instruments
of a higher power. The Gita has been carefully instructing us how to avoid
making this disastrous mix-up of frames of reference, but it’s a very tricky
business. Because intelligence has become a dirty word thanks to a number of
factors, including the horrific excesses of rationalists in denying many truths
that are perfectly obvious to the less well educated, there is a pervasive
belief that intelligence has to be subtracted from the picture to permit
spirituality to fill the void. The Gita, of course, extols intelligence wielded
with expertise, which would include not erecting arbitrary barricades to common
sense. The present chapter follows the same blueprint. It is about bringing
intelligence to bear on the whole range of the problems of life, not at all
about disconnecting the intellect via excessive emotionalism.
who expects no favors, who is clean, expert, who sits unconcerned, carefree,
who has relinquished all undertakings—he, My devotee, is dear to Me.
first word of the Sanskrit, anapeksha,
is most interesting. MW tells us it means “regardless, careless, indifferent or
impartial.” It is the negation of apeksha,
meaning in part, “looking round or about, consideration of, regard to,
connection of cause with effect or of individual with species; looking for,
expectation, hope, need, requirement.” In the negation of this there is an echo
of the Gita’s theme of living without expectations of reward, and there is
definitely the sense of not looking to circumstances to provide for your needs.
Fully-established yogis are so present that there is no time sense and hence no
cause and effect to worry about. They rely on the Absolute for sustenance—at
least on the mental and spiritual levels, if not the physical—and all else is
gravy. Several of the other terms relate to this idea also, namely the one “who
sits unconcerned, carefree, who has relinquished all undertakings.” Since yogic
attunement is the highest achievement, what else is there to do? This attitude,
far from bringing works to an end, frees the yogi to act with expertise.
Guru’s rendering, that we should expect no favors, uproots a large chunk of
human vanity. Very many people relate to the divine realm as a provider of
boons or an answerer of prayers. We are already richly supplied with incredible
wealth on every level. Since everything comes to us as a “favor” anyway,
longing for additional blessings is dependent on a basic ignorance grounded in
selfishness. It’s a very subtle gesture to live in total reliance on the
Absolute and yet not in any way be demanding, pleading, or hopeful of special
dispensation from it. True poise means having no doubts whatsoever, nor any
expectations, and only union with the Absolute can provide sufficient
confidence to achieve it.
such a state cannot be led up to in stages. It is an all-or-nothing
proposition. Nonetheless, as seekers of truth we are impelled to try. Guru
Nitya gives this advice, in Living The
Science of Harmonious Union:
When we look at the lives of great
people of mature wisdom we see that compassion wells up in them for matters
that look insignificant to others, while they look unconcerned in matters of
personal loss and on occasions when others would be agitated…. They are in a
solid state with regard to their personal integrity. All the same they are
receptive of the pains and agitations of the people around them. As they are
moved to compassion, they dedicate all their time in the service of all sentient
beings, [yet] they remain unmoved in witnessing the transient ways of the
A person who lives constantly in transcendence, such
as one’s guru, is also a human being. We are encouraged to watch how such a
person overcomes situations that should cause agitation. Although in the
beginning it may look as if we are only imitating our model, in the course of
time our choices become habitual. Then it is no longer imitation but a
spontaneous adherence to higher ideals and we also become established in the
tranquility of a yogi. (123)
is mentioned frequently in the Gita, and is to be taken as referring primarily
to spiritual purity rather than the simple physical version, though that also
has its value. In most cases it’s easy enough to wash the body and tidy up our
room, but tidying up our psyche takes a bit more doing. We have to be careful
not to treat spiritual purity as a refined version of physical cleanliness,
where we merely have to act in a certain restrained way. We suffer from a condition
that can’t be disguised by a sweet smelling deodorant. We are called to dig
deeply into our hidden stinkiness, to throw light into the murky recesses we
prefer to pretend are not there, and really wrestle with any demons that spring
forth. This is in fact one of the key markers of a spiritual life: boldly
penetrating where ordinary mortals fear to tread.
root of the word used for cleanliness and purity, suc, reveals a sense of radiance, of glowing like a flame, and even
the agony of burning. Thus there is a kinship with the root bha of bhakti, light.
The meaning of suchi, according to MW, includes:
“shining, glowing, gleaming, radiant, bright; clear, clean, pure; holy,
unsullied, undefiled, innocent, honest, virtuous.” So being clean means bringing
light into areas that have previously been shrouded in darkness. If we harbor
any guilty secrets we will have a hard time evincing suchi. Purity will be
discussed in more depth in XIII, 7.
a corollary, we can only be unconcerned if we have nothing to hide. Ordinary
unconcern is often a feigned casualness to cloak secret tensions and
derangements, a kind of false front. The Gita insists we confront those quirks
of the psyche and lay them to rest. One of the most intriguing and baffling
aspects of a realized person is how unconcerned they are, in palpably authentic
ways, about matters that obsess the rest of us. And not just in a spaced-out,
unworldly manner, by “not noticing,” but with full cognizance of the issue in
question. They truly see that everything is traceable back to the One Beyond,
the Absolute, and so it strikes them as being in perfectly good hands, so to
speak. There is no emergency. Plus, as all manifestation is reciprocally
related, an anxious attitude attracts anxiety-producing aspects of life, while
a peaceful one leads toward peace. We can uncover precisely what our nightmares
are by examining the factors that cause us to worry. So remaining unconcerned
is at once part of the goal and an excellent tactic for achieving it, as long
as it’s grounded in honesty.
if we are unconcerned is it possible to be free of care, gatavyathah. While being carefree and unconcerned might strike us
as almost trivial, like the phrase “footloose and fancy free,” there is real
profundity here. We keep throwing blocks up for ourself as long as we try to
suppress our continuously transforming nature, or screen out fearful
awarenesses. We have to both accept things as they are and become more open to
possibilities in order to be carefree. It is easy for children, but supremely
challenging for adults once we have lost our innocence. This is echoed in
Jesus’ phrase, “Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as
little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt 18.3)
here can be contrasted with one of the “demonic” values mentioned in XVI, 11:
“Engrossed with infinite cares lasting till doomsday.” Being obsessed with
never-ending trivial details is a hallmark of hell on earth, and the least we
can do is struggle to slough them off. A lot of humans believe in staying busy
so they don’t have to think about anything; the Gita’s philosophy is the exact
opposite. Much of the instruction of the final third of the work is how to free
ourselves from bondage by infusing contemplation into our actions.
“unconcerned and carefree” is about as close as the Gita gets to advocating
levity. One of the distinguishing marks of a worthy guru is their sense of
humor. They evince the “laughter of the immortals.” I know of so many examples
I couldn’t begin to relate them without bringing this commentary to a close
right now, so I’ll just quote Paramahansa Yogananda: “A saint who is sad is a
sad saint.” True understanding sweeps away morbidity and depression to reveal
the amusing divine sport at the heart of creation.
Nitya elaborates on this theme near the midpoint of That Alone, The Core of Wisdom:
central teaching of the Upanishads can be given in one sentence: tarati sokam atmavid,
the knower of the
Self crosses over all pains. tarati
means crosses over; sokam, sorrow;
and atmavid, the knower of the Self.
The mark of knowledge is asokam,
having no sorrow. Where there is sorrow there is ignorance, and where there is
no ignorance there is no sorrow. You can easily find out whether you are
ignorant or not by looking at yourself. If your mind has sorrow, if you are sad
or in misery, it means you are in a state of ignorance. (329)
Guru wrote the following about this verse, apparently not suspecting that in later
years he would be attended by a group of Western freaks more like pirates than
The epithets suchi (clear, clean) and daksha
(expert) do not suggest the sloppiness or slovenliness which is often condoned
in the name of other-worldliness or mysticism. A man of devotion is not steeped
in the negative state of inert ignorance. A contemplative is not a hobo type.
The Gita here discountenances any type of spirituality which does not include
being awake to the details of a given situation, without which no one could be
described as daksha (expert), i.e. a man
of savoir faire. (526)
It’s one thing to be somewhat battered by the vagaries of
life while striving to live without cares, and another altogether to ignore
basic human dignity. Mental sloppiness is often an indication of either
addiction or some other imbalance, a symptom for which a cause should be
idea of relinquishing all undertakings has been dealt with in detail in
Chapters III and IV. It does not suggest not doing anything, but means giving
up the sense of agency that resides in the ego. Thoughts and actions arise from
deep within our psyches, and are only witnessed at the last moment by our
conscious mind. We should therefore join our conscious intelligence onto the
inner surge of our respective talents, fostering the best and deleting the
rest. Finding the perfect balance point between action and inaction, or leading
and following an inner muse, is one of the toughest challenges before any
aspirant, but the result is always spectacular.
as a whole, the values depicted in this verse reveal a happy, amused, peaceful
and wide awake participant in the wonders of life.
who neither rejoices nor hates, nor grieves nor desires, and who has
relinquished both the beneficial and the harmful—such a one, endowed with
devotion, is dear to Me.
you take this verse wrong, you might be led to believe that you aren’t supposed
to have emotions, or react to anything, or indeed, be alive in the human sense
at all. A lot of people, misguided by a loose interpretation of scripture,
strive mightily to thwart their normal functioning and imagine it’s unspiritual
to feel feelings. Always remember, the Gita teaches freedom, and freedom
through expression, not repression. Thus if it seems to be asking us to curtail
our natural expressivity, we have to reassess our interpretation. Conscious
existence is not a mistake to be erased, it is the whole reason for being.
we look closely, we can see that the states of mind we are asked to discard in
this verse are in fact optional. That is, the states are optional, not the
discarding of them. We may revel in our good fortune or curse our bad fortune,
and it’s possible to carry on nursing our reactions for a long time. But
clinging to those states takes us out of our center, thereby reducing what the
Gita refers to as union with the Absolute. They should be allowed to dissipate
as soon as practicable.
have to find ways to let go of our compulsive feelings instead of holding onto
them. Dr. Taylor, the neuroanatomist, puts it this way, in My Stroke of Insight (New York: Viking, 2006):
Although there are certain limbic
system (emotional) programs that can be triggered automatically, it takes less
than 90 seconds for one of these programs to be triggered, surge through our
body, and then be completely flushed out of our blood stream. My anger
response, for example, is a programmed response that can be set off
automatically. Once triggered, the chemical released by my brain surges through
my body and I have a physiological experience. Within 90 seconds of the initial
trigger, the chemical component of my anger has completely dissipated from my
blood and my automatic response is over. If, however, I remain angry after
those 90 seconds have passed, then it is because I have chosen to let that circuit continue to run. Moment by moment, I
make the choice to either hook into my neurocircuitry or move back into the
present moment, allowing that reaction to melt away as fleeting physiology.
What most of us don’t realize is that we are
unconsciously making choices about how we respond all the time. It is so easy
to get caught up in the wiring of our preprogrammed reactivity…. (146)
This is a modern version of exactly what the Gita is
recommending. All of us are buffeted by events, and it is easy to feel that we
are victims of circumstances and become overwhelmed by them. But the wise yogi
checks them out—-experiences them, if you will—-but then as quickly as possible
returns to the calmness of neutrality that alone permits full conscious
awareness. The experiences themselves do not require a cover up; in fact it is
much healthier to allow them to happen for a little while. In the case of a
serious tragedy, the rebalancing might take a long time, because it shouldn’t
be forced. The yogi never loses sight of the neutrality symbolized by the
Absolute, but the invisible cords that produce the imbalances can only be
released at the rate they become visible to the mind’s eye.
technique also accords well with modern neuroscience. Each time we relive a
memory, it is reconsolidated into a new version. If we leave traumatic memories
alone because we’re afraid of them, they continue to fester and drive us
unwittingly before them, like tumbleweeds in a gale. But if we recall them to
mind, they can be rebuilt into less terrifying versions. Many traumatically
terrifying events of our childhood seem much more bearable to an adult who
understands what they mean. So the more we critically examine them the more our
traumas lose their power as impellers of action.
address the elements of the verse one at a time, let’s start with rejoicing.
Unlike unalloyed joy, which is the nature of the Absolute and thus ours as well,
rejoicing is a kind of carrying on about joy. It often comes as a reaction to
oppression, as soaring feelings of relief. While it’s an undeniably wonderful
sensation, nothing that is a reaction can be considered perfectly neutral.
Moreover, when rejoicing is amplified with the intention of forcing the joy, it
can transform into something else entirely. Most of us have known people who
have lost their grip, so to speak, and who cover up their discomfort by
desperately trying to appear joyful, but under the surface there is something
ugly driving them. Celebrants are often trying to run away from their
unhappiness, not knowing that the harder they try to evade themselves the
greater the consequent misery will be. Pure unalloyed joy comes only after we
quit all escape mechanisms and soberly face the music.
Sanskrit word translated as rejoicing, hrishyati,
adds the sense of astonishment or surprise, and is related to the word for the
hair standing on end as in fear. Recall that Arjuna experienced this
physiological reaction when he sank into despair in the first chapter, and
again when he gained a mind-blowing vision of the Absolute in Chapter XI. It is
apparently a more superficial state than the joy of union praised throughout
the Gita. Needless to say, the whooping it up of Krishna worshippers falls well
within the scope of pressing for an excess of joy. In a reciprocal universe,
taking the good in opposition to the bad, or joy in opposition to sorrow,
inevitably reinforces the negative side along with the positive. A yogi seeks
to bring all such conflicts to an end by joining, not dividing, the polarities.
brings us to hate, making its third appearance in the chapter because it is the
flip side of rejoicing here. Many unhappy people love to foster hatred. There
is something attractive about it, something very satisfying to the gut
instincts. It’s like a carnivore bringing down its prey after a chase, and then
tearing it to pieces and devouring it. There is a wild joy in it! Rejoicing and
hatred really do form a dialectical pair, with each implying its opposite.
is not always obvious. It can be disguised in many ways, even as humor. Humor
is often victim-oriented, done at someone else’s expense. In those cases the
funny reveler is compensating for serious resentments. The transcendental humor
referred to in the last verse is of a different order entirely. Since we are
all in the same boat, it invites us to laugh with, not at, the butt of the
addressing our problems as outside ourselves we may believe we are being
terrifically clever, but we are actually being terribly divisive,
unintentionally energizing destructive forces. Most totalitarian societies were
designed to solve problems, but of course they always create far more
difficulties than they solve. Even close to the Gita’s home, we see in the
modern world that a segment of those who identify themselves as Hindus—heirs to
the very womb and nursery of non-hurting and universal tolerance—are becoming
increasingly belligerent and even violent. When people allow themselves to blame
others for their own miseries, instead of addressing them right in their own
hearts, tragedy is sure to follow.
we see how syndicated solutions go awry we might be tempted to abandon all
efforts and just run away, but this is exactly what the Gita unequivocally
countermands from the outset. Instead, these are opportunities for serious
self-examination, keeping in mind that the solution begins within us, not
Gonzales reminds us of the importance of keeping a close eye on our own unconscious
motivations, in his book Everyday
Survival, (New York: Norton, 2008):
What we think we’re doing and the
outcomes of our actions are often strangers to each other. (99)
When we are not living examined lives, when we aren’t paying
attention, when we are not practicing self-reliance, other forces slip in to
dominate our lives, our behavior, and ultimately our fate and our future.
Relying on others and losing our own abilities has made ours a fearful and
vindictive society. Societies, like individuals, build emotional systems.
Shocks to the system can accumulate and lead to overreaction. (141)
Gonzales cites a number of famous psychological experiments
that show that humans like to fight. We select our identity to underscore our
hostility, while imagining we are defending that identity from destruction. We
would do better to remember Narayana Guru’s advice:
The many faiths have
but one essence; not seeing this, in this world, like the blind men and the
elephant, many kinds of reasoning are used by the unenlightened who become
distressed; having seen this, without being disturbed, remain steadfast.
By fighting it is
impossible to win; by fighting one another no faith is destroyed; one who
argues against another’s faith, not recognizing this, fights in vain and
perishes; this should be understood. (Atmopadesa
Satakam, Verses 44 and 46)
and desire are paired to remind us that they also are a polarity, which is not
so obvious. Their relation was made clear in Chapter II, verses 62 and 63:
“Meditating on objects of sense-interest there is born in man an attachment for
them; from attachment rises passion; in the face of passion (frustrated) arises
rage. 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.” In short, grief arises from frustrated desires. In addition, they
are an inward reflection of the more outward-aimed rejoicing and hating, so
verse 17 reveals a fourfold polarity stemming from our attempts to
superficially manipulate our environment.
safe to say that most spiritually oriented people would assert that we should
be beneficial and not harmful to the world, so the Gita’s advice to shrug off
both will be a bit baffling. The key is that our judgment of one versus the
other is an assessment by the ego, based on inadequate information. It’s very
hard to say whether something is beneficial or not, and if we try to judge we
will invoke the Uncertainty Principle, which tells us that the very act of
observation interferes with what is being observed. As noted above, the most
repressive societies begin with the desire to “fix” the world’s problems, and
the inverse proposition, that we should therefore not try to do anything at
all, is about equally flawed. Somewhere in between these two extremes is the
optimal path, mysterious and fluid.
advice to judge not, and then we will not be judged, is the same mystical
teaching, with a correct aim at ourselves instead of the world. A Sufi-style
parable told by Catherine Heath on her website thehighestlove.com makes the
idea eminently clear:
There once was a poor old man who
owned a beautiful white horse.
Whenever noblemen passed through
the village, they always noticed the horse and offered handsome sums of money
for the stallion. But the old man always declined their offers, saying, “This
horse is my friend. How can I sell my friend?”
One morning the old man awoke to find the horse was gone.
The village people gathered and said, “Old man you were a fool not to sell the
horse. You could have been wealthy! Now it has been stolen, and you have
nothing. It is a great misfortune!” But the old man replied, “Don’t go so far
as to say that. Whether the horse was stolen or not, or whether it is a
misfortune or a blessing, is unknown. All we know is that the horse is not in
Some days later the horse returned, bringing with it several
beautiful wild mares. Again the village people gathered, and they said, “Old
man you were right! The horse was not stolen, and it was not a misfortune. It
was a blessing, and now you have many fine horses!” But the old man replied,
“Again you go too far. Don’t say it’s a good thing, don’t say it’s a bad thing.
Just say the horse is back. Whether it is a blessing or a misfortune is
Some days later the old man’s only son began to train the
wild mares, but he was thrown and trampled, and one of his legs was badly
broken. Again the village people gathered. “Oh old man, you were right! It was
not a blessing but a great misfortune, and now your only son is lame! With a
sigh the old man replied, “Don’t say it’s a good thing, don’t say it’s a bad
thing, just say my son has broken his leg. Whether it is a blessing or a
misfortune is unknown.”
It happened that a few weeks later the country went to war,
and all the able bodied young men were forcibly taken for the military. Only
the old man’s son was passed over, because he was crippled. The whole village
was crying and weeping, for they believed their sons would probably be killed
and never come home to them. In their grief they came to the old man and said,
“You were right old man, your son’s injury has proven to be a blessing. Your
son may be crippled, but he is with you, while our sons are gone forever! The
old man simply shook his head and said, “Will you never learn? Only say that
your sons have been forced into the military and my son has not. More than that
is not known.”
Emulating the old man’s unitive attitude is what is
described in this verse as devotion to the Absolute, or bhakti.
who is the same to foe and friend, and also in honor and dishonor, who is the
same in cold and heat, in pleasure and pain, and who is free from attachment,
everyone is subtly prejudiced in favor of their friends and holds stronger
negative feelings about their enemies. Yet prejudice of any kind is utterly
foreign to the spirit of the Gita. Like a proper judge, the wise yogi strives
to apprehend things as near to their true stature as possible. Adding our own
spin to situations clouds the waters, not just in the world outside but in our
own psyches as well. When we presume all faults belong to our enemies, a
typical war mentality, we are heading toward conflict. We should be clear that
all humans have good and bad aspects, and not polarize around our preferences.
It’s actually very blissful to remain neutral in the midst of conflict, and
this can never happen so long as we take sides. This is the essence of the
Gita’s vastly liberal philosophy.
hard to see how honor and dishonor differ very much from censure and praise,
found in the next verse. In this case, the words translated as honor and
dishonor refer to our own inner judgments about outer situations or people.
Censure and praise, on the other hand, are judgments rendered on us from
without, mostly by people who don’t know us very well and are primarily
projecting their own faults and expectations onto us. While essentially the
same, the directional arrows are reversed.
are trained early in life to make judgments based on admirable versus
unacceptable behavior, and this is fine as far as it goes. A lot of pedagogues
go overboard with it, however, even to the point of obsession. We can fritter
away our lives making judgments about the relative merits of other people, and
adjusting our identity to bring us in contact with those who share our
prejudices while demonizing those who don’t. Unconsciously we are imagining
that by holding the correct, gold-plated opinions sanctioned by God or our
segment of society, we are assuring our well-appointed afterlife or that our
side will prevail. Sometimes we imagine that by putting others down we are
raising ourselves up. All we’re really doing is spreading misery and hardship
using our attitudes and actions for weapons. To the Gita, this is all a sick
waste of time, a form of veiled hatred.
like everyone, experience natural urges to judge and interfere with the people
they encounter. Like the startle reflex when you nearly step on a snake, it’s
virtually impossible to do away with the immediate reaction. The difference is
that a yogi doesn’t simply act on the urge, but lets it dissipate so they can
examine the problem dispassionately. The ego would have us believe that our
knee jerk responses are divinely or at least intelligently inspired, which
places them above reproach. The wise yogi anticipates that snap judgments are
likely to be tainted with a lot of personal baggage, and introduces intellect
into the mix. It’s nearly always true that first impressions are a far cry from
settled understanding. In fact, it’s a good meditation to recall some instances
where your initial impression turned out to be radically different from your
feelings after becoming better acquainted with the person or situation.
and heat do not refer to actual temperatures, though again literalists sit in
the snow or walk on coals and call it yoga practice. People have cold or warm
attitudes, and we should not be deflected from our neutral ground by how they
feel about us. If they are cold, let them walk away without trying to hold onto
them. If they are too warm, gently push them back a couple of feet, so you have
a little breathing room. And coming as it does right after honor and dishonor,
this pair also refers to our feelings about others. We should not either snub
anyone or come on too strong, based on our preexisting feelings. A yogi does
not nurse a grudge or secretly cherish anyone, either. When the extremes are
brought to the mean through yoga practice, it becomes easy to maintain a kindly
and open attitude to all, and so to treat people as they are instead of how we
wish they were. More on this subject will be found at VI, 7.
pleasure-pain duality has received a lot of attention ever since the second
chapter. Attachment is closely related to this pair, since we are hardwired in
our brains to avoid pain and seek pleasure. If we want to be free, we must
learn to see how our wiring impels us to act and react and not be unduly
influenced by such urges.
Indian philosophy, the ego is the part of the mental system that becomes
attached to preferences, usually associated with pain versus pleasure
dichotomies. The ego is a normal and healthy part of our makeup, as long as it
is kept in bounds by a measure of detachment. Even microscopic flatworms move
away from painful stimuli and toward food rewards. The yogi seeks to rise above
such automatic, predetermined behavior by yoking intelligence with action.
whom censure and praise are equal, who is silent (in manner), content with
whatever happens to come, having no fixed abode, mentally constant—such a man
of devotion is dear to Me.
paper, censure and praise, similar to the fame and shame of X, 5, might strike
us as relatively trivial. It might seem a simple matter to take them in stride,
since they are “only words,” but if you’ve ever had to deal with their effects
in any significant fashion you must have felt their bite, as Krishna pointed
out in II, 34-36. The power of words is well known in Vedanta, as Guru Nitya
points out in That Alone:
word is like a bomb. When I throw the grenade of a word to you it bursts into
your mind, with the result that a meaning is evoked. In Sanskrit this bursting
aspect of words is called sphotam…. We
are shooting at each other with the bullets of words. They come and hit us and
we react to them. So our world of conscious activity is caused by the bullets
of words. (286-7)
actual words hurled at us are merely the skin of a very formidable beast, and
underneath them are pointed barbs of various emotions, including hatred or
toadying. It can be hard work indeed to weed out our sensitivity to what others
say to allow for a state of equal-mindedness. The more usual path is to merely
numb ourselves to what others say, either by hypnotic meditation practices,
drawing a dark veil of tamas over them; or in the case of sycophants, believing
the lies they tell us. A true yogi does not consider any of these to be viable
ancient Greeks recognized this situation in the myth of the Sirens, whose songs
lured sailors off course to wreck on the rocks. The allure of the songs was so
powerful that the sailors had to seal their ears with beeswax lest they be
either lured to destruction or otherwise deflected from their proper course.
The solution offered is more a forceful shutting out of the input than yogic
finesse, however. The Gita wants to teach us how to hold to our course with our
ears wide open, more like Odysseus only without having to lash ourselves to the
attachment to censure and praise begins very early in life, when as little
children we scheme for the affections of our parents or caregivers. As we move
toward adulthood, we learn to orient ourselves to the world in terms of other
people’s opinions of us, both positively and negatively. This energizes the
bifurcation of the world into those aspects we like and those we despise, in
other words, delineated by our ego preferences. The moment we become reactive
instead of active, paradise is lost.
of its sting, censure usually makes us pull inward and stifle ourselves, and to
look for a psychological hiding place. To instead stand firm and take the
criticism, openly admitting our faults while discountenancing any false
accusations, is an act of bravery. It is not learned in a day. We should not
admit to more than our fair share, either, which is what the bruised ego often
does, out of despair. Reeling in pain, we decide we are no good at all, that
every possible fault is ours alone and everyone else is perfect. Some religions
prey on this very common attitude of the injured or immature ego, reinforcing
the beliefs that the individual is irrevocably sinful and holding out their
particular sect as the only antidote.
can also deflect blame, but it is a purely defensive position to begin with,
not at all the same as countering it with wisdom. Pointedly ignoring or
blasting back at criticism is far inferior to being like a vast pool in which
any stones thrown into it make barely a ripple.
is almost more insidious, because we don’t usually take an attitude of
opposition to it. It goes right past our defenses, to inflate our egos. We welcome
it, and quickly and subtly learn to manage our actions to invite more of it. But
managed actions are not unitive in any sense. We become like an actor playing primarily
for applause, and can easily lose ourselves in the process. Ulterior motives
are subversive of inner harmony.
give an example, I am an amateur pianist who has loved the instrument from birth.
In early adulthood, while in the tumultuous beginning stages of my relationship
with my guru, Nitya, I was rededicating myself to learning to play well as a
form of yoga. While meditating at the piano one day, I had a vision of my
parents and grandparents gathered around and listening to me perform as a
child. They were enthusiastic and encouraging, but what this revealed to me was
that I still retained lingering deleterious influences from those occasions. In
the back of my mind I was still playing for my relatives’ approval and
attention, which was an inferior motivation and a distraction. It was turning
the music into a way of proving I was okay, making it a compensation for
insecurities that I was theoretically discarding. The realization was an aha!
moment, where I could laugh at myself and easily let go of those ghosts. As an
adult I realized that my grandfather at least would have been miserable to have
to listen to a kid play the piano, and any enthusiasm on his part would have
been feigned. It was quite freeing to begin to play solely for the optimum
expression of the music and my own joy. I am still happy to share beautiful
music with anyone who cares to listen, but there is no longer that unconscious compulsion
in it, no need to attract attention to myself.
touch our secret hopes for being worthy and admired, and they make us glow
inside. Most of us hear more criticism than praise in our lives, and it often feels
like a knife in the heart even when we know it is wholly unfounded. All of us
have good and bad qualities, but in our core we are not those qualities. It
takes a strong connection with this awareness to deflect either kind of input
and hold to a neutral evaluation of ourself. Practice helps. Knowing that you
will undoubtedly react to outside opinions prepares you to examine your
reactions and let them go when it happens.
in real life censure and praise can be serious obstacles, difficult to
overcome, in many cases a yogic technique such as the Gita’s is required to lay
them to rest. In practice this means they are to be matched one against the
other in order to attain the sameness in which their effects are transcended.
If someone praises you, you should think simultaneously of your unsavory
qualities, and vice versa. As much as our egos would love to be treated as all
good, everyone is a unique amalgam of many degrees of the good, the bad and the
ugly. Over and above this give and take, you should know you are not really
either honorable or dishonorable. You are the Absolute.
effects of both praise and blame are more difficult to detect in ourselves than
in others, so a guru can be a big help in this area. They very often can “read”
your state of mind and will provide a counter to it. This can be shocking or
surprising, to whatever degree we identify with our state of imbalance.
reminds me of another story. In the first Portland Gurukula in 1971, Nitya was
very active in counterbalancing everyone both personally and as a group. In a
wild and chaotic group of young people, I could see him in my mind’s eye as
moving around psychically to maintain a dynamic equilibrium, preventing our
collective consciousness from getting out of hand. It required him to be more
extreme than he would have preferred to be, I’m sure, because we were all over
the map, experimenting with breaking every rule in the book. One time during
morning hatha yoga, he gave evidence of how he was personally helping each of us
to be equal minded, as well. I’m not too flexible, and had been struggling with
a number of the postures, though making slow progress. One morning I was
finally able to do a successful “plow,” which is a shoulder stand with the legs
brought back behind the head to touch the floor. In those early days, na´ve
people like me imagined that enlightenment was dependent on being able to get
into certain poses. I felt a rush of satisfaction as I finally attained the
awkward position. Upside down, I heard Nitya say, “Look at Scott.” I thought,
“Wow, he sees what I’ve accomplished and he is going to praise me. This is
great.” Nitya went on, “For a big man, he is so stiff and rigid. He really
isn’t very good at yoga at all.” All the air went out of my balloon. But I
laughed to myself, because I got his message loud and clear: “Be unitive. Don’t
gloat. And I’m right there with you, inside your head.” Where I expected
praise, he delivered mild criticism to bring me back to a neutral position.
should also note here that the Gita offers us yet another dialectical pair,
albeit a subtle one. The expression of sameness and groundedness in the
Absolute moves outward to foe and friend alike, cited in the last verse, and it
is matched by inbound feelings of either approval or disapproval, likewise from
friends and foes both. We may imagine we have isolated our self-image from
other people’s opinions, but when we hear real words describing who they
imagine us to be, it hits us in our secret ego-nest. It can cut us to the quick
or make us puff up like some ludicrous fish. It doesn’t much matter that other
people know very little about us, true or not what they say has a powerful
a devotee of the Absolute becomes strong and free, they are likely to meet a
lot of resistance from frightened souls ground down under the boot heel of
conformity. There is a lot of resentment of freedom by those who have
unconsciously abandoned theirs. Some Christians, for instance, are taught that
yoga is a trick of the devil that brings enslavement. Ludicrous, but apparently
they believe it. You must be prepared to hold to your own dharma in the face of
mean-spirited opposition. It helps to have compassion for those who resent
someone doing what they would secretly love to do too, since an invisible hand
of punishment hangs over their heads all the time, stifling their own
gist then, is this: a yogi’s state of mind should not be determined by other
people’s opinions, pro or con. Nor should those opinions be pointedly ignored.
They should be scanned to see to what extent they reflect the reality of the
situation. A yogi must not allow their ego to block valid criticism. There is
bound to be a kernel of truth in almost any opinion, and sometimes a bushel of
it. The yogi takes it for what it’s worth, consciously discarding the
tangential part while taking helpful suggestions to heart.
silent manner recommended here is utterly different from the modern practice of
making a big racket and calling it bhakti. Getting worked up and celebrating
are fun once in awhile, especially for youngsters, but they are at base merely
bodily events. Because of the advice accompanying this advocacy of quietude,
especially the next line, “content with whatever happens to come,” we can
detect the need for openness within the silence. It is not a turning away from,
but an opening up to, the world. Paradoxically, if you are busy loudly chanting
and ringing your cymbals, you are deaf to everything outside your immediate
performance. The quieter you are, the more you can hear.
people who lack grounding in their true nature feel a desperate need to prove
their existence. They feel compelled to make noise and move around a lot, as if
that was somehow proof they were alive. Our most essential nature is, after
all, devoid of perceptible content, so it can be unsettling to the untrained
ego. If you can’t relax into the emptiness, you might be compelled to chatter
incessantly, not realizing that the emptiness is completely full.
Paradoxically, the stream of hot air passing over the vocal cords with nothing
to say is ample proof of the emptiness of the talker. The Biblical “Vanity of
vanities, all is vanity,” refers to the same. In the original sense, vanity
of the Bible, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount also weighs in in favor of a quiet and
restrained relationship with the Absolute: “Take heed that ye do not your alms
before men, to be seen of them: otherwise ye have no reward of your Father
which is in heaven. Therefore when thou doest thine alms, do not sound a
trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets,
that they may have glory of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their
reward.” (Matt. 6:1, 2) The ego would prefer to strut like a peacock and be
admired by onlookers, but there is nothing spiritual in it, only the joke of a
naked emperor on parade.
no fixed abode” does not mean a yogi has to be homeless, although moving about
does have a certain value in averting mental stagnation for some people. Your
abode is where you hang out in your mind. We often build dens of
self-reinforcing ideas and struggle not to break free but to stay well inside
them. The phrase means a yogi must be flexible, willing to step outside their
web of cherished beliefs and opinions to meet a new friend or idea with an open
mind. When life shows us we are wrong, we shouldn’t defensively cling to our
beliefs but lightheartedly give them up in favor of the better way that has
been revealed. You can learn this important lesson without going anywhere.
verse offers an interesting dialectical pairing, of movement and immobility
together. The yogi is mentally constant, grounded in truth and reliably
steadfast. There is no wavering based on doubt or premature notions. At the
same time there is flexibility and continual movement from one abode or frame
of reference to the next.
surprisingly, it is an aspect of bhakti or devotion to the highest ideals that
brings this dichotomy to unity. Steadfast grounding in love engenders absolute
confidence based on trust in the Absolute, which in turn allows us to reach out
and embrace the unanticipated without fear. It no longer matters where we are,
because we are always at home.
is another piece of advice, similar to the beliefs about possessions reviewed
in IV, 21, that is very often taken too literally. In consequence whole
phalanxes of sannyasins take to the highway, vowing to never stay in any fixed
location for more than two days, or three during the monsoons. Many of them
undoubtedly cling to their beliefs as fixedly as ever, priding themselves all
the while that they are doing God’s bidding by becoming nomads. Literalism is
itself a fixed abode, and therefore exactly what we are advised to shun here.
And while moving about is to some degree charming and educational, it is far
from a requirement for true sannyasa, true renunciation. We have only to look
at Ramana Maharshi to have an example of the best of renunciates never wasting
a minute going anywhere.
they who cherish devotedly this righteous immortal value, as stated, endowed
with faith, with Me for the Supreme—these devotees are exceedingly dear to Me.
come to the most unitively attuned state, the “dearest of all.” Sri Aurobindo
interprets this to refer to those who make the Absolute their one supreme aim.
Most of us field a part time interest level, but a few are continually
dedicated to attaining wisdom. For them, every aspect of life is dredged for
meaning, and applied to new growth possibilities. Those are the ones who stand
out and perennially win praise from their peers, but we shouldn’t forget that
the more ordinary types are equally important in our own way. The continuum of
seekers of truth is valuable throughout its entire range.
Guru makes much of the shift from the third person singular to the plural here,
with all the “he whos” abruptly becoming “they who.” He has a somewhat
different take on it than I, but for both of us this seems to indicate an
openness toward the generality of dedicated seekers. The Gita is telling us
that the most important quality is the focus on the “righteous immortal value”
of the Absolute, and all other attributes are secondary. Verses 13-19 present a
yogic pairing of opposites; here we have a single unitive value as their
have arrived at a synthesis of the bifurcation present in the early verses of
the chapter, where the dilemma is whether to relate oneself to a personal or an
impersonal conception of the Absolute. Krishna began by lauding the personal,
specifically because it is easier, but then assured Arjuna that both were
equally efficacious. Here at the last, both are reduced—or better, exalted—to
their essence as conjunctions with the light that is the Absolute. When such a
merger becomes accomplished, any hypothetical distinctions made previously
between personal and impersonal become irrelevant. They are subsumed in the
brings the middle third of the Gita to a close, the part concerned primarily
with the Absolute itself. As we settle back into our ordinary consciousness
through the final third, the immanence of our union with the Absolute will
slowly fade into the background. The certitude of direct experience begins to
be substituted to a degree by faith, but by no means an empty faith. We know
what we saw and where we were, and we know it is us, so our faith is
unshakable. It has nothing to do with other people’s claims; rather, it comes
from our own clear memory of a definite experience. That’s the kind of faith
everyone has without even trying: significant recall of the events of our life,
and the belief that all of them are an integral part of who we are. Such
certitude will always remain a rock solid foundation in our lives.