Nitya Teachings

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Chapter XVIII - Unitive Behavior Patterns

                       Sannyasa Yoga 

         Renunciation, sannyasa, is the final yoga type presented in the Bhagavad Gita. Renunciation, along with the more nuanced form of relinquishment known as tyaga, comprise the most practical essence of the Gita’s teaching. In simple terms, sannyasa is a wholesale abandonment of all actions generated by the self, while tyaga is more selective, the weeding out of negative tendencies while leaving the positive and necessary ones to be expressed. Because the Gita favors tyaga as the best model for almost everyone, the chapter should probably be called Tyaga Yoga instead of Sannyasa Yoga.

         Guru Nitya frames the subject matter succinctly in Therapy and Realization in the Bhagavad Gita:


Sannyasa is the giving up of the personal agency which can make the center of consciousness change from self to ego. When that tendency is given up, you find, instead of a personal agency, a cosmic order functioning, of which you are an integral part. When your program of life is identical with the general system to which it belongs, then you are a sannyasin. Sannyasa does not mean you should have a beard or a shaven head or a colored cloth or anything. Those are all superficial things.

The sannyasa in this chapter is referred to either as an institutional type or a non-institutional type. Arjuna was directed to conform to the non-institutional and not the institutional. When you become a sannyasi you become a tyagi, a relinquisher of the fruit of action. Sannyasa and tyaga are taken up again in this final chapter and tyaga is placed as the real model for all people.

Ultimately, what is renounced here? You renounce only your personal motivations and your personal sense of agency. You make yourself part of the whole. This is how the entire process is worked out.


         Chapter XVIII brings us back to everyday reality (though there is nothing mundane about it!) with suggestions that are as practical as it gets. At long last we have nearly finished transiting the entire rainbow arch of the Gita and are ready to be set down once again on the solid footing of practical matters. This last chapter consists of specific recommendations along with some recapitulation of the most important teachings, preparatory to sending the students on their way, fully prepared to make their own decisions wisely and well.


1)         Arjuna said:

         I desire to know, O Krishna, the truth of renunciation as also of relinquishment, each distinctly.


         Arjuna starts the ball rolling with an invitation for Krishna to clarify one of the Gita’s most essential concepts. It would be a little abrupt for Krishna to open the chapter with his answer, so Arjuna is permitted to ask this leading question first. He will have only one more verse at the very end. Krishna delivers a masterful wrap up of the subject matter, and after his closing remarks—among the most profound and electrifying in all of literature—he asks Arjuna if he has heard, and Arjuna answers yes. Although he might prefer to have Krishna guide his life forever, he must stand on his own. He will wake back up in the midst of the eternal battlefield of life, Kurukshetra, confident of what he has to do as well as liberated from what he does not have to do.


2)         Krishna said:

         Bards of old understood by sannyasa the renunciation of desire-prompted action; the relinquishing of the benefit of all actions those with insight declare to be tyaga.


         Krishna obligingly recapitulates one of the Gita’s most important contributions to world philosophy, that wholesale renunciation of action is absurd and impossible and not even a good idea, but relinquishing expectations as to the outcome of your actions covers the same psychological territory without the downside. To a populace trained to a rational, dissociated outlook where “you make it happen” his advice is initially counterintuitive, but on further examination it becomes supremely liberating. Our expectations block and twist the onrushing wave of the Absolute’s unfoldment, and by letting them go we are instantly more able to participate in the flow. By now Krishna has made a convincing case for truth seekers to relinquish the fruits of action, while continuing to participate fully in every sensible aspect of life.

         Independence according to the Gita does not require separation from your surroundings, as it is often conceived; it means fully taking part in them, free of prejudices and selfishness.

         Dissociation from life can produce severe mental aberrations. Rishis in the time of the writing of the Gita could see all around them the deleterious effects of renunciation or sannyasa taken to its logical extremes. People would spend their whole lives hanging upside down from a tree limb, or starve themselves, or sit on nails or walk on hot coals, etc., in an attempt to crush the reactions of the body, and free the spirit by default. No one in possession of their sanity would ever do such maniacal things unless they had an expectation that they would accrue some even greater benefit from them. They did prove, at least, that willpower can accomplish just about anything, even transcend the most ghastly torture. But of all the spiritual giants of humankind, none that we know of took that type of path to realization.

         Not only was all that intense effort misspent on spiritual irrelevancies based on the dualistic treatment of spirit (or mind) and body, people’s physical vehicles were often severely damaged. An unhealthy body makes many demands on consciousness that are absent to those who take basic care of themselves. The Gita is in part an attempt to redirect those wasted efforts to healthier pursuits. With tyaga, relinquishment, you can live a normal, productive, health-conscious life and still get the same effect as renunciation is imagined to have, as long as you don’t allow yourself to be drawn into fantasies about future outcomes of your actions. If you are wholly present in the Now, acting in tune with the stream of current events, your actions will lose the coloration of desire easily and gently. Indeed, force itself is generated in lustful promptings, so it too should be abandoned. In most cases gentleness is more powerful and effective than brute force anyway.

         Thoroughgoing renunciation can work for the very bravest, wholly absolutist types in the right circumstances, but it represents only a handful of the infinite number of ways to be. Nitya Chaitanya Yati’s autobiography, Love and Blessings, beautifully details such a life within the confines of the almost modern world. He was one of the rare few who gave himself completely into the hands of the Absolute, living on what came to him solely by chance. Those like him who succeed in letting go of the sense of agency in just the right way are our greatest rishis.

         I remember reading in an Indian newspaper about an African, I think from Uganda or Kenya, who decided to walk around the world, and set out barefoot and penniless, with only a small rucksack. Several years later he was passing through South India while I was there. He was wholly dependent on the kindness of strangers he met along the way. Most of the time he didn’t speak the local language. But he was being absolutely himself and having a great time. People hastened to offer him care and lodging at every step. What a wonderful way to be a renunciate! And yet, for most of us it would soon be tedious and confining, seriously limiting our svadharma, our most creative self-expressions. For the right person though, it’s yet another way to bring light to life.

         I was once blessed to look into the void of total renunciation as a reality and not a fantasy, and it terrified me. I couldn’t bear to give up my whole life, my family, my delightful interests, everything. So for me tyaga is just right: I can continue to be a father and husband, a teacher and friend, living a life that I am familiar with even as I try to stay open to the winds of chance. Mentally sane people who can renounce everything are extremely rare; for the rest of us the Gita is an unsurpassed textbook on how to live well.


3)         Action should be given up as an evil, declare some rationalists; others say that acts of sacrifice, giving and austerity should not be abandoned.


         Krishna picks up where he left off at the end of the last chapter, reinforcing his assertion that positive action is not to be discarded. He addresses the two main streams of philosophy, one which advocates total inaction and the other which advocates beneficial actions while restraining the non-beneficial. It should come as no surprise to an attentive student of the Gita that Krishna is not in favor of total renunciation. As Guru Nitya sums up in his book Love and Devotion:


Krishna took the best from the pre-Aryan contemplative India, and also he welcomed the joyous and positive attitude of the Aryans. In both his life and philosophy we can see this beautiful blend of the contemplative detachment of a seer and the positive acceptance of the transactional world in all its variegated richness. (20)


         In the Gita’s day, and through most of recorded history, seekers have struggled to cease doing as much as possible, imagining that some divine state will be brought about through stopping the mind completely. The Gita offers a very important revision, that positive activities are not only advisable but essential to our well being. We aren’t saving up for a future heaven: this is it. And we aren’t supposed to disappear so something better can happen: we are what’s supposed to happen.

         Brain imaging shows us that the brain never shuts off, even in the deepest sleep or meditation. Only the center of activity shifts to different areas. Sannyasa, then, is the surrendering of the dominance of the ego/cortex to permit the rest of the self to join it in the arena.

         We have to approach the subject here keeping in mind Krishna’s earlier assertions (for example, VIII, 28, and XI, 53) that actions like sacrifice, giving and austerity do not automatically lead to realization of the Absolute. They are fine things to do in life, but by themselves they are not a prescription for transcendence.

         Krishna is unequivocal, however, that sacrifice, giving and austerity are what constitute voluntary action at its best. Voluntary action outside of these, generally speaking with a selfish motive, never turns out well in the long run, so anything else worth doing must stem from the obligatory pressures of necessity. There is no question that necessary action has to be performed. Failing to act when we should is not spiritual, it is tamasic: irresponsible and debilitating.

         So freely chosen activity, in the guise of sacrifice, giving and austerity, should not be abandoned, and necessary action is only renounced by the delusional. That covers the whole range of sane action, as Krishna will underline next.


4-6)         Hear now from Me the settled conclusion about relinquishment; indeed relinquishment has been well known as of three kinds:

  The acts of sacrifice, giving and austerity should not be relinquished, each should indeed be observed; sacrifice, giving and austerity are the purifiers of rational men;

  but even these actions should be done leaving out attachment and desire for result; this is My decided and best conviction.


         The Gita recommends overcoming desire-prompted action and replacing it with intelligently conceived action (in harmony with the Absolute). There is hardly anything mystical in this. Desire-prompted action can get us into big trouble, but if we use our intelligence we can easily avoid most self-generated disasters. This truism is expressed in modern vernacular in the joke that God gave men both a brain and a penis, but only enough blood supply to operate one at a time.

         Sacrifice, giving and austerity are covered in detail in Chapter XVII. I like to sum them up as signifying three “directions” of freely chosen action: neutral or steady, outwardly directed and inwardly directed, respectively. Sacrifice is activity done in mental balance, for its own sake. Giving covers what we offer to the world around us, and austerity is how we manage what enters our psychosomatic system from the environment.

         Very few people practice any of the three without some measure of expectation, but all are diminished in proportion to the desire for a specific outcome. For instance, if you give a gift with the expectation of getting some benefit yourself, like social esteem or entrée into heaven or even simply to encourage friendship, it becomes an act of manipulation instead of a purely generous gesture. There is at least a spiritual difference between acts of generosity motivated by compassion and duties carried out in support of a scheme. Even if the differences are very subtle, humans can sense them, and they have an impact.

         It is difficult to conceive of an intentional austerity that isn’t motivated by desire for gain. We have to imagine that more or less pure motivations are possible. To do this we picture a continuum of possible actions. At the positive end we do what we do in order to perfect our individuality to act in resonance with the whole. At the other extreme we undergo hard training to become professional killers or saboteurs. Most of us fall somewhere in between, performing a few lukewarm austerities like hatha yoga or giving up ice cream, hoping it will make our body healthier, or pursuing a polite vocation to provide an income. Or we take a class or join a study group to try to keep our mind unclogged. Krishna is not saying that we shouldn’t do these things, or that we should act randomly without direction, only that once they are chosen we should concentrate on the doing rather than what we hope the outcome will be, because we really don’t know. Outcomes are imaginary, but the performance is real. Plus, we can only surrender fully to the actions we are performing if we have no expectations about where they will lead. As should be abundantly clear by now, expectations inhibit our full development, the bringing forth of our best latent potentials. In a world where hype regularly trumps common sense, this is particularly wise advice.

         Sacrifice is also only pure when it is done spontaneously and without considerations of personal gain. Many religions have quid pro quo arrangements for a heavenly afterlife based on acts of sacrifice and charity, especially those directed to financing the home church. The Gita does not play that game.

         Actually, the three categories mentioned here overlap significantly. In all of them something is given up or given away, and all are normally performed in expectation of a reward of some kind. When we give something away we are sacrificing it, and doing without it is a kind of ascetic austerity. So while the categories are initially helpful to study the issue, in practice we don’t have to define our every action. We simply gently suppress our selfish urges and remember the deceptiveness of appearances, permitting a broader spectrum of our capacity to come into play.

         Eknath Easwaran rightly reminds us that transforming violence into peace, hatred into love, despair into hope, fear into fearlessness, and so on, are practices of purification that we should be engaged in regularly.


7)         Verily, the renunciation of necessary inevitable action does not arise; the renunciation of such through delusion is said to be tamasic.


         Krishna’s “settled conclusion” is that voluntary action—namely sacrifice, giving and austerity—should be done well and not avoided. Other than that there is unavoidable necessity, which has many forms. Maintenance of the body and the environment, interactions with friends and neighbors; whatever comes along that has to be dealt with is necessary action. A tsunami looms; you’d better run. The rent is due; you’d better find a way to pay it. You have to take off your shoes to be screened at an American airport. None of these has any particular spiritual value, they are just what you are required to do. Stewing about them is a waste of time, and not doing them leads to chains of unfortunate aftereffects. This archetypal situation is symbolized in the Gita’s overarching metaphor of Arjuna on life’s battlefield, where he is facing the direst necessity. His initial desire to flee is a tamasic choice. Wading in as a polarized participant fighting for his own interests is the rajasic selection. And turning to a wise counselor to fully understand the situation before acting in the interests of the whole context is the sattvic approach.

         There are a number of important implications of this verse. Perhaps the most critical is that striving to avoid necessary activity, while usually depicted as spiritual, is more likely to be tamasic. So many spiritual practices are centered on stepping aside from the bustle and surge of life. But that is not the Gita’s way. Each soul is alive with the potential to participate fully in nature. Krishna is quite clear that hiding out of sight searching for an alternative reality does not do anyone any good, and protesting that taking action would be difficult is a lame excuse. Enlightened detachment permits us to be involved and yet not be made miserable by the negative impact of events.

         What we want to be doing is realizing—making real—at least a little of the vast potential we are brimming with. Necessary action needs to be performed with a minimum of entanglement, to leave us free for things that matter. Sattvic relinquishment means we do the work and quickly let it go, so we can return our focus to something creative and perhaps even useful. Rajas gets caught up in dealing with necessities and never finds time for “the good stuff,” and tamas simply bags it.


         Verses 7-9 examine tyaga in relation to the three gunas, which appear in reverse order to the Gita’s norm. Since relinquishment is more nuanced than renunciation, and cannot be performed at all without forethought, in relation to tamas the term is not even used. There is no tamasic relinquishment. It would be oxymoronic, like unsubtle subtlety.

         If you give up what you should be doing, that is tamasic. It doesn’t matter how spiritual you imagine yourself to be, according to the Gita you are just plain out to lunch. Everyone likes to think that their attitude is enlightened, or at least reasonable, but if it actually isn’t, believing it is can keep you mired in delusion for a very long time. Humans can rationalize just about anything, with the greatest of ease. That’s why we need to honestly question ourselves to uncover our real motives.

         Despite knowing how easily we can fool ourselves, almost everyone will read verse 7 and think, oh that isn’t about me. It’s just about deluded people. Well, we are all deluded, and it bears careful scrutiny to sweep the tamasic cobwebs out of our mental attics. They can’t be seen with a cursory glance.

         If we take a broad view of religious and spiritual practices throughout history, many of them look incredibly boring and ridiculous to us now. People froze their psyches in caves and cells, trying to shut out their thoughts, stunted themselves in all sorts of ways, dressed funny, slaughtered each other, and so on. Delusions stand out boldly when they are affecting others, so it behooves us to ponder how we look to other people. Or better yet, we could ask them. If invited, a guru will offer us a true accounting.

         Delusions come in a wide variety of packages. Many people get their favorite buzz on and relax in a pleasant fog, feeling very spiritual until the drug wears off, at which time anxiety returns to clamor for another dose of “spirits.” Our brains easily mistake the absence of threat for enlightenment, so we rest contentedly when we have shut out everything that might cause us harm. But that is stasis, not enlightenment. Our tamasic side can make a very convincing case for it, however.

         Even if we are honest with ourselves, what we “should” do is not a fixed, known quantity. It never is. Figuring out what to do is part of the yogic process, of knowing what to relinquish and what not to relinquish, and the challenge helps make life interesting. One helpful way to look at this is to remember that our brains have several levels of operation, and only the topmost, the cortex, is our waking consciousness. Yet the deeper levels are very intelligent, wise even, and they are trying to direct us in ways that express our innate genius. They are more or less successful depending on how our consciousness receives the input and carries it out. What we want to relinquish is not action itself, but all the extraneous junk that inhibits effective action, so that we can act with expertise.

         When we are being dull and tamasic, we don’t pay attention to our inner promptings, at least our noble ones: the healthy vasanas. We either zone out or we dutifully follow a well-worn path prescribed by habit, and this erects an effective block to “divine inspiration,” as we sometimes call our inner guru. When we are rajasic, we have heard a greater or lesser part of the message and are working busily to express it, but the work overshadows the inspiration, so we may veer off course at times. Only in a sattvic state are we able to work harmoniously, with our physical actions and conscious understanding in tune with our deepest inspirations, our “upsurging billows of beauty,” as Shankara so enchantingly puts it.

         As explained in verse 2, the Gita clearly favors tyaga, relinquishment of the fruits of action, over sannyasa, the outright renunciation of action itself. It means you continue to act, but without any specific expectations of how it will work out. We naturally choose a course of action with high aspirations, but then we need to remain open to how the present is weighing in. Or put very simply, in order to be motivated you have certain expectations, but you also realize that something other than what you expect will inevitably happen, and you’re excited about it. This is a practical technique for staying open to our vasanas, the inherent potentials we want to actualize. Expectations nudge us off course, every time.

         In verse 7, the first appearance of ‘renunciation’ is a translation of sannyasa, but the second is of parityaga, a kind of halfway in-between term. Parityaga, a little more crude than simple tyaga, means “leaving, abandoning, deserting, quitting, giving up, neglecting.” While retaining the root tyaga, it is more akin to raw sannyasa, and is universally translated that way, since English does not have an equivalent intermediate term. The bottom line is that the overall subject of these three verses is definitely relinquishment, so unnuanced renunciation is denigrated as tamasic.

         Nataraja Guru makes the excellent point that “To the extent that renunciation is normal and natural, it does not come under the scope of this verse.”


8)         He who relinquishes action from fear of bodily trouble, considering it painful, thus willfully (rajasically) relinquishing, does not get the (legitimate) benefit of relinquishment.


         Most other translators (who are right in this case) render this as relinquishing because of fear of pain or bodily trouble. That covers the general case intended here, while Nataraja Guru’s version, fear of bodily trouble, makes it sound like the body is the whole reason we are afraid of things. We act out of fear of mental pain as much as physical, though on reflection they are closer together than they sometimes appear. I’m sure that’s why Nataraja Guru worded it this way, knowing that the mind is part of the body and vice versa. Regardless, the Gita’s intent is to cover the entire spectrum of possibilities, not just fear of bodily troubles.

         Rajas can be linked either with sattva or tamas. In conjunction with tamas, efforts are made to build barriers and defensive installations, to shut out challenges. Rajas in the service of sattva provides energy for fostering excellence. It would appear that the first kind, the negative rajas, is what is under reference here, where the motivations are warped by self-protective considerations.

         This would include all the excuses a person might concoct to avoid work. The “legitimate benefit of relinquishment” is freedom, brought about by the clearing away of obstacles, but freedom happens within activity, not separately from it. When we prevaricate to evade necessary work, we wind up substituting further entanglements for what we have avoided. A part of us—call it our native sense of justice—is well aware we are shirking our destiny, and cannot accept it. There is a vague disquiet, if not serious depression, when we fail to align ourselves with the requirements of the call to action. But another, lazier part of us often makes a case for escape from life’s demands, and we switch our energies to a less strenuous outlet. Krishna counsels freedom through fulfillment of our potentials, which is much more creative and satisfying.

         Selfish motivations range from crude to subtle. When the fear of advancing old age and death pinches you, you take up an exercise program and bring home the vitamins. You start adding selfless service to your life to adjust your “karma” or pave the way to a happy afterlife. You take up a new hobby to keep your brain alert. All these are commendable. The only thing that’s missing is that they aren’t necessarily expressing your own inner inspiration, so they fall short of the ideal. Anyone can do these things without enduring a long course of study at the feet of some guru. The Gita is aiming us toward something finer, toward fulfillment of the excellence we were born to express on behalf of the universe.

         A simple example of what this verse implies is where you have a great idea that you’re really excited about, but when the time comes to take action you think of all the hassle and hard work involved and decide just to go shopping or watch a movie. You can do the important stuff later! Krishna wants you to know that no one is fooled but you. In your mind you are saving the world, but in actuality you are sitting on the couch.

         Action should not be promiscuously confused with employment. Many jobs yank us away from our true inner calling, and so it is often the case that relinquishing them can free up more room for the expression of our dharma. Still, employment for most of us is unavoidable, necessary activity, not to be abandoned unless you can live as a real sannyasi, existing off only what Chance provides. We should at least look for ways we can make our necessary employment an outlet for our creativity, instead of merely being resentful.

         Nataraja Guru beautifully expresses the complexity involved in yogic relinquishment: “Neither simple renunciation mechanistically understood, nor simple relinquishment, lifted from its organic context, would be considered conducive to spiritual progress.” We have to be awake and alive at every moment—which is the organic context—and not follow rote guidelines.


9)         When necessary action is done, Arjuna, recognizing its imperative character, relinquishing attachment and benefit, such relinquishment is considered sattvic.


         The distinction the Gita is making is further clarified here. Relinquishment means doing necessary action without attachment and without expectations about the outcome, but that doesn’t mean that what we do is senseless or doesn’t attain a meaningful result. Action is necessary because it matters.

         Full renunciation of the benefits of necessary action would mean you shouldn’t pick up your paycheck at the end of the week. Nataraja Guru likened the idea to setting fire to your crops after they have ripened. Relinquishment, on the other hand, means you don’t work all week with only the paycheck as incentive. You put your heart and soul into what you are doing, and so bring it to life. If you are merely biding your time until the cash rolls in, your performance will be mediocre. Plus, you will only be half alive, and life is so short you should aim to maximize your aliveness whenever possible. No one benefits from mediocrity. There is almost always a way to stay awake and involved with whatever you have to do.

         Krishna will soon distinguish between the value of short term pleasure and long term happiness. We are constrained to do many things that aren’t “just for fun,” at least in the immediate sense. The sattvic way would be to just do them and not obsess over them. But instead we feel the need to rationalize and justify our every action. We want to believe there is some higher purpose served, and before long we become advocates of our constraints. We may even scorn those who don’t advocate the same constraints, who don’t share our sense of priorities. This is a deviation from a direct relationship with our intrinsic freedom, which Nataraja Guru expresses this way:


By insisting on the avoidance of sangam (attachment) and phalam (fruit, benefit or result) it is prescribed that the actor should be free from even the desire for salvation as a spiritual benefit to the extent that it is a third factor in the form of a counter-attraction which could interfere with the strictly bipolar relation between the contemplative aspirant and the Absolute which is his soul. (659)


         This verse should awaken us to the joy in even the most mundane aspects of our life. Instead of being mired down in drudgery, we can lift our hearts to the miracle within every jot and tittle. For instance, many people complain about having to wash the dishes every day, as though it was such a major drag that their life is spoiled by having to deal with it. I can attest that with the right attitude it can be fun: transforming dirty things into clean ones, making slow progress, feeling the warm soapy water, recalling the pleasures of the meal, knowing you are contributing to complete a cycle. It’s all in the attitude.


10)         The relinquisher pervaded with purity, of strong intelligence, and of sundered doubts, hates not unpleasant action, nor is he attached to pleasant ones.


         Relinquishment is not an insipid, slipshod performance, like being in a rush to be over and done with whatever we’re doing, but a masterful accomplishment. Being pervaded with purity requires discarding lots of extraneous garbage; intelligence is a result of intense energy engaged in thought; and doubts have to be sundered with careful scrutiny. None of this happens by itself. It is highly paradoxical that attaining a neutral state of mind requires a lot of well-directed effort.

         Let’s face it: not all of what we have to do is enjoyable. Lots of tasks are unpleasant. But the Gita’s recommendation is to meet it all, the good and the horrible, with a cheerful equal-mindedness. The more we cavil about our life, the more we withdraw from our sprouting and blossoming program, the heavier the gravity that weighs us down. As a professional “lazy bum” myself (now retired), I know what I’m talking about.

         Look carefully at the dichotomy here: hatred of the unpleasant isn’t opposed to love for pleasant actions, but attachment to them. This is a critical distinction. When we have a balanced attitude, we are not banned from enjoying life, only from getting stuck on our preferences. We are supposed to be having fun, with all of it.

         In my career as a firefighter we had a very large amount of really awful jobs to do. I never minded the critical ones where we were saving lives and protecting property, but there was way more drill and janitorial work and what was called “make work,” things to do so you looked busy to whoever might be passing by, which had little or no practical value. I considered it my job to complain about the stupid activities we had to do every day, yet none of my grousing had the least effect on what we were required to do. Sometimes it was moderately amusing, but I’m sure I drove some of my officers nuts when they had no choice themselves. Wasting time has always struck me as a crime; in some jobs it’s a major preoccupation.

         What I didn’t realize was that my complaining was also wasting time: I was focused on trivialities when I should have been simply being, or turning my mind to something more inspiring. It was a long learning curve to become content and even charmed by some of the ridiculous things we humans do to get by. Most of our life is not like the movies, it’s fairly humdrum. But our heart beats, our breath surges and our brain whirs, endlessly. We are living miracles, and each moment will never be repeated. If we leave off the excess baggage of our preferences and aversions, we will be traveling lighter and much more freely.

         It is a truism of spiritual life that our likes and dislikes are beside the point. An ordinary life bounces between them and makes its way, not unlike a paramecium, a unicellular organism that propels itself forward until it bumps into an obstacle, then changes course and bores straight ahead until it hits the next obstacle, scooping up food as it goes along. Evolution has produced a lot of variations on that perfectly adequate theme, and is only now beginning to move beyond it. Spirituality is when we have progressed enough to be guided by an inner harmony we call the Absolute, to which our superficial preferences cling like barnacles to a ship’s keel. It allows us to dance around obstacles before we crash into them.

         Yoga helps in learning this. If we maximize our likes, the reciprocal nature of existence will provide us with equally stupendous dislikes. If we tone down our positive attractions, the negative ones will also diminish. It works the other way too: overreacting negatively produces greater reciprocal highs, but there is always an alternation back and forth. In the extreme it produces bipolar disorder. If we restrain our reactions to the negative, the positive will be less tempting, less of a pull out of equipoise. When we settle into a balanced state, we transcend the whole tug of war of trivial effects, and it’s quite blissful. Bliss is the true happiness that does not produce a countervailing state.


11)         Nor indeed is it possible for an embodied one to completely relinquish action; he who relinquishes the benefit of action is verily called a relinquisher.


         In case there is any lingering doubt, Krishna makes it perfectly clear that you don’t have to quit what you’re doing and retreat to a monastery or cave to become wise and free, just stop imagining you know where your steps are leading you. Defining the indefinable is not going to help an intelligent seeker. That sort of delusion bottles up your creative energy, so who needs it?

         Enlightenment happens wherever you are, and can only happen where you are. Imagining it takes place elsewhere erects an insurmountable barrier, a spiritual catch 22, since you can never actually be anywhere else. Even in a monastery everyone believes the godly state is out there somewhere. Where can it be? The Gita proclaims it is right here, in the heart of all, but we won’t be able to realize it until we relinquish the fantastic fantasies we weave around it.

         After all the criticism of expectations, let’s get one thing straight. Working toward an honorable goal is second best, but that’s still a respectable position. The Gita is offering the best, but short of living up to what it invites, the fallback position for almost all of us is to have meaningful goals and consciously strive to make them come about. At least that way we don’t just spin our wheels, imagining we are incubating something profound when there is actually no bun in the oven.

         When we sweep aside the mystical language, here’s what’s going on. Below consciousness is a vast brain filled with astounding capabilities, and the Gita’s spiritual advice is a way to access those capabilities, to invite them into our life. Otherwise they lie fallow as unactualized potentials. Learning to bring them into awareness requires humbling of the conscious ego by orienting it to something greater than itself. It doesn’t matter in the least what you name it. The unconscious is by definition unknown, so it can be called anything that suits a person, keeping in mind that the concept and its name are not the unknown itself. Many people have been trained to believe there is nothing of value in their unconscious, so it is pointless to try to access it. For them, there are only conscious programs. There is no God, no vastly competent inner organizer. Lucky for them, the spirit usually finds a way to become manifest even without support.

         Plenty of what we do, no matter how amazing our life might be, is mundane repetitive, tedious, uninspired, not requiring the Absolute or the unconscious to weigh in. All that “everyday necessity” can be dealt with perfectly well by our conscious mind alone, and in that realm we are often more effective if we are motivated by a goal. The fact that our unconscious does a lot of invisible support work even in the most trivial of circumstances is worth acknowledging, but doesn’t require any undue attention. It serves our conscious aims fabulously well without demanding any magical invocation.

         Today I was doing some heavy yardwork that could have been ignored forever with no particular consequences. It was a sacrifice, voluntary action for a neighbor who would never even notice, probably. As I tugged at each heavy load, I used mental intensity to help give me strength: “If I can just get it to… there!” I was goading myself forward. If I hadn’t had that immediate goal, those unsightly lumps would still be where they were. How often do we all push ourselves perform better by doing the same thing? “If I can just run to the next intersection,” “If I can just hold on till five o’clock,” “If I can just ignore the harassment for another minute,” you name it. It definitely does pull up an extra measure of energy for the task at hand. And it doesn’t cause further karmic bondage; it helps get the karma retired faster.

         All that type of activity is perfectly acceptable. What happens at those times, though, is that we are acting simply as rational beings, somewhat dryly because we are not tapping very far into our inner wellspring. We are using our will in place of inspiration, and that’s fine in those types of circumstances. Will is a very healthy part of our equipment. Once the action has been decided, go ahead and use it.

         Acting with expertise, the Gita’s recommendation, mainly applies to our highest aspirations, our interactions with other people, our finding our way in a confusing sea of options. Here is where we need to bring all our resources to bear, and realize how little we are consciously in control of. In these matters, goals and expectations and desires for rewards shift the focus from the depths to the surface. They are just what we don’t need. If we minimize them we make room for our inner guru to give us an educational demonstration. It’s really not that complicated. Some people are baffled because they only know conscious action, and it is easy to get the impression that that’s a no-no in the Gita. Not at all. There’s just no need to teach commonplace behaviors when we are aiming for spiritual excellence.


12)         Pleasant, unpleasant and mixed benefits accrue in the spiritual progress beyond of a non-relinquisher, but none anywhere to renouncers.


         It seems as if Krishna is suddenly putting renunciation on a par with relinquishment here, whereas before it was considered inferior. Renouncers have been considered second-rate throughout the Gita. On top of that, we would expect non-relinquisher to be paired with relinquisher, but instead it is paired with renouncer. Thus there is a very subtle dialectical problem presented in this verse.

         Non-relinquisher refers to the ordinary person who is motivated by the anticipated results of their actions, and this is contrasted with the renouncer who willfully restrains all actions. Both are considered inept by Krishna.

         Most commentators believe the accrual of benefits is bad and their non-accrual is good. Certainly as far as the Gita is concerned, benefits are not the point, as they embroil us in further chains of action. Yet here they are given their due at the moment as legitimate results of action. Although we should not long for them in specific terms, results definitely do occur, and they produce the endlessly fascinating play of existence.

         So it isn’t that living free of benefits is the goal, especially since the subject is explicitly spiritual progress. Benefits are fine, when they come as the natural outcome of unitive action. Only inaction produces no outcome, and by contrast non-contemplative actions produce results that are all over the map. While the verse’s wording makes it sound like he’s favoring one over the other, Krishna is denigrating both types as missing the mark.

         The natural or ordinary person who takes things as they come and makes decisions in reaction to various stimuli, plows through the sea of life leaving a vast wake. Only a perfectly inactive person could leave no wake, but then they wouldn’t be going anywhere, either. In any case, Krishna has already pointed out that total inactivity is impossible. The tyagi, the true relinquisher, minimizes the wake by deleting all excess motion and concentrating on the balance point of the Absolute at all times. The excess motion of human beings is our flailing about with irrelevancies and clinging to hoped-for outcomes, which is the mature version of the reward seeking we practiced as children.

         We all want good benefits as recompense for what we do. Unfortunately, results come as a package deal, good, bad and mixed. Mixed benefits are the most common. It’s very difficult to do anything good that doesn’t have some drawback, some unforeseen downside. Conversely, as the venerable English proverb puts it, “it is an ill wind that blows nobody any good.”

         So here we see that not intentionally producing results is in fact the most desirable outcome, even though results are sure to happen. All three classes of results bog us down in consequences (meaning “with sequences”), chains of events that compel us to address them. Doing nothing—in other words, being dead, at least psychologically—brings no effect because there is no cause. Lacking that condition, we want to minimize the negative aftereffects of what we do, the blowback, as the CIA calls it. By the way, the CIA is very poor at minimizing unintended consequences. Not enough Gita study. The modern military mind has learned to ignore the disastrous negative impact of its forays and simply pretend it’s all for the best. Needless to say, this is diametrically opposed to a holistic state of mind.


         Yoga means viewing polarities on a continuum, each grading into the other. I believe that is the key to the secret of Krishna’s teaching here. It isn’t that the first is wrong and the second is right, both extremes miss the point. The non-relinquisher is the ordinary mortal who stumbles from one incident to the next, always hoping to get something out of it and usually being surprised by all the unexpected and unpleasant outcomes. This is (possibly facetiously) being called spiritual progress by Krishna, though there is little doubt that the ordinary slings and arrows of outrageous fortune do have an educational value, even if it is not always easy to appreciate. By contrast the renouncer turns off everything, and so gets no results at all. Those who renounce what they should actually do drive themselves into an evolutionary dead end. Krishna has just spoken eloquently in favor of purificatory action and the absurdity of abandoning action. He maintains that there is a valuable benefit to action, namely union with the Absolute, or call it a harmonious life. So we are looking at a continuum of failure, or at any rate insipid spirituality here. The dynamism of the intelligent yogi is directed beyond all this, to relinquishment. Relinquishment is therefore the synthesis of the thesis and antithesis presented in this verse.

         Most of the Gita’s teachings are quite clear once a scientific non-religious attitude is adopted toward them, but this one is obscure, and made more so by the confusion of religious-minded commentators. Nataraja Guru gets it just right:


By subtracting the samnyasin (renouncer) from the natural man, we get a precise notion of what is implied by the term tyagi (relinquisher). A willful samnyasin (renouncer) negatively rejecting action is thus reduced to an absurdity, and it is the purpose of this verse to bring this into relief by a clever method of comparison implicit in what would appear a contrast. The abhava (negation) of the Nyaya philosophers is here used with a skill which outwits them. (664)


The natural man the Guru speaks of is the non-relinquisher, atyagi, the one who acts specifically in order to obtain results. One of the keys is for us to remember that there is no prescribed way of behavior in spiritual life, no rules to follow to reach a desired result. Rules and results are limited to the transactional, horizontal context. Living by rules is like trying to guide a rat through a maze using a cattle prod. Unitive action is when the rat finds its way without any external compulsion.

         Spiritually, each of us is a unique representation of the divine nature permeating everything. We are in essence a segment of the universe unfolding. It assists neither our own nor anyone else’s development to be critical of the shape it takes, so long as it is not harmful from an unbiased perspective. The Gita wants us to appreciate the myriad wonder-filled ways that life finds its expression, while always remembering the connection between the source and its evolutes. As long as this attitude remains vital, we will not stray too far from what we are called to exemplify. In other words, our dharma will be fulfilled.


13-15) Arjuna, learn from Me these five causes for the accomplishment of all actions, as stated in the Sankhya at the end of the Age called Krita:

  The basis and actor, and also the various mental instruments, the several and varied movements, and fifth, the divine factor;

  whatever action a man undertakes by the body, speech and mind, justifiable or the opposite—these five are its causes.


         As the Gita eases back down to earth, we encounter its version of the Sankhyan system once again. Remember, it was the takeoff point in the first half of chapter two.

         Being a scientific text, it is only proper that the Gita presents a schematic sketch of the whole individual, who is its primary subject matter. Five broad categories are spelled out here:


Basis: The physical framework that allows us to function as individuals in a material world.


Actor: The I-sense, soul or self.


Mental instruments: Intentionality and comprehension; drive.


Movements: Behavioral expressions, in other words, the actions themselves.


Divine factor: Herein is lumped Fate or all events that happen to us outside of our control. The vastly complex domain of the unconscious is the modern version of the divine realm.


         In the more than 2000 years since the Gita’s recording, much has been demystified. We no longer credit natural events to the caprices of divine will, but simply to the interplay of comprehensible natural forces. Still, it is quite healthy to view whatever is out of our control as if it was the product of divine intent, aimed at promoting our own spiritual evolution. How much better to treat what happens to us as an educational experience brought to us by a loving ally rather than to curse our fate, filling our hearts with bitterness and bile! And how much more welcoming is a caring milieu than a coldly rational mechanical universe mindlessly ticking away its clockwork hours?

         We’re not talking about natural disasters and trying to decide whether earthquakes are the product of divine intervention, although many superstitious humans still treat them as such. Attributing accidental events to a vengeful god is ignorance at its most compassionless. But for eighteen chapters now we have been talking about an intelligent unfoldment of our destiny that occasionally triumphs over the ways we regularly sabotage it by following well-meaning but inappropriate belief-systems. The Gita unfailingly redirects our quest into the unknown from a hypothetical beyond to an experiential inner instrumentality.

         Guru Nitya has a brilliant exposition of these verses in his Gita commentary, using Nataraja Guru’s structural analysis based on the Cartesian coordinates. The basis is placed at the vertical negative and the divine factor the vertical positive. The mental capacity is visualized at the horizontal negative and action or movement is the horizontal positive. Smack in the center of all this is the actor, the I-consciousness.

         The point of all this is that the actor in us is located in the center of everything, as one faculty among several. Knowing this leads us straight to the next verse, which condemns the isolated feeling we have when we are identified solely with our ego, of believing we are running the show. The actor is more like a rider on a wild horse than a lion tamer with a whip. Or mathematically speaking, it is the zero point where the other four factors find their balance, essentially as an emergent product of their environment.


16)         Now, such being the case, the man of perverted mind who, because of unfinished intelligence, looks upon himself as the isolated agent of action—he does not see indeed.


         Verses like this make perfect sense in the light of our modern understanding of the brain. Our unfinished intelligence is the cortex acting in isolation from the rest of our resources, imagining it is in charge—what I call the Al Haig syndrome, described in XI, 20. The sense of self is the tip of the iceberg, which because it has a good view over the ocean imagines it is the only part worthy of consideration. Finishing our intelligence means integrating and fine-tuning our conscious with our unconscious proclivities.

         Unitive understanding does not require any program of practice or learning in order to bring it about. It is always present, underneath all the ongoing programs. Any transformation, intentional or otherwise, is merely to come to realize this fact.

         A rationalist tends to identify with the ego, but the ego is not the true person. It’s more like society’s stand-in, Big Brother’s implant, if you will, tilting the personality toward following instructions from a grim taskmaster. A main thrust of the Gita’s teaching is to break the seeker loose from the ego’s dominance to discover the deeper being that is free to make it’s own choices. The “perverted mind” is when the intellect is made subservient to the ego, instead of the other way round.

         We can see practical effects of this everywhere we look. Take employee management in business, for example. Since I was always at the bottom level of my organization, a fire department with a quasi-military structure, I’ve had a lot of experience being on the receiving end of management practices. Some managers are highly effective because of their ability to stay open and not have expectations, or at least they do not add unnecessary expectations onto the commonsense goals of the organization. As an underling, you can actually feel a supervisor’s extraneous expectations, and you inevitably resent them. Those exemplary supervisors who are willing to accept what you have to freely offer, by contrast, make it easy and enjoyable to carry out their requests. I always did more work and with a better attitude for the ones with less rigid expectations, or better yet the one or two who went as far as to appreciate my uniqueness. Being appreciated stimulates creative thinking that is bound to be beneficial to the business also. Those mangers who cling to a narrow range of possibilities thwart their underlings’ potentials and damage the enterprise in the bargain.

         There is another paradox here. Managers are trained to and believe in pushing to get results, but that is sure to elevate the unintended consequences. Pressure produces resentment and opposition. The easygoing employees, who are least likely to be promoted, may actually be more useful, but not necessarily in ways that supervisors have been trained to appreciate. It is always easier to focus on extraneous appearances than essences.

         One of the most tragic results of the sense of individual isolation is in schooling, where kids learn to stifle their own creative souls and simply regurgitate what some bureaucracy has deemed “correct.” They are simultaneously taught that they are only their surface and that the surface is beholden to powerful outside interests. As a result they become zombified, like the walking dead, resignedly awaiting orders. No wonder when young people discover drugs that restore some sense of independence by numbing their inhibitions they imbibe whatever they can lay their hands on. Being ourselves is the best high of all, and it’s the real forbidden fruit of conventional thinkers. Many orthodox religions go as far as to treat individual empowerment as an affront to God and the original sin. In other words, we come to believe we are isolated individuals who do not truly belong to the family business, and so are permanently on probation. Until we outgrow such toxic beliefs, humanity will continue to voluntarily wrap itself in chains of misery.

         Integral to being ourselves, Guru Nitya makes the absolutely essential point that we have to take responsibility for our actions. Abdicating responsibility “allows even superstitious brutes who are caught in the snares of hallucination to perform atrocities… while holding the firm conviction that it is the will of God, not their own will, which is responsible.” He adds, “Is God a person with whom we can interact, or is it only an abstraction? If God is an abstraction, how do we surrender our will and action to that? How can we expect an abstraction to bear the responsibility for our own actions?” On the other hand, if an omniscient God is in charge, individual will is impossible.” (Gita, p. 420)

         We can look around and see exactly this type of misunderstanding surfacing in tragedies worldwide. Belief in an external manipulator calling the tune opens the door to all manner of truly deadly sins. When we jealously guard our will and simultaneously attribute it to God, the clash of contexts opens the door to the worst kinds of behavior.

         The limits of selfish action were explored in detail in Chapter XVI. See also the verse 17 commentary below.


17)         He who is free from ego-sense, whose intelligence is unaffected, though he kills these people, he neither kills nor is bound.


         A police sharpshooter is called in to shoot a deranged man with a gun who is barricaded in a restaurant and has already killed over a dozen people. The sharpshooter’s lethal behavior is in this case not a crime but a highly skilled act in keeping with his duty and training, and it is ordained by the needs of the situation. There is no alternative. He has no reason to think “I am the killer,” nor does he need to wrestle with his conscience. He is not considered a murderer, and does not need to suffer guilt to expiate any sin. Quite the contrary, he is a hero who has saved and protected the community.

         This is the type of exceptional circumstance wherein a person can be free of guilt while engaging in actions that are otherwise inexcusable. Sri Aurobindo gives the example of a civil servant who throws the switch for the execution of a criminal as being likewise blameless. The need for the execution was socially determined, and presumably the civil servant is comfortable with the laws involved. Exceptions are usually made for anyone who isn’t, at least in public executions.

         Needless to say, a soldier on the battlefield, which is the actual situation Arjuna has found himself in, is in the same boat. It is by no means easy to act with detachment in such intense situations, in other words without ego involvement or having one’s intelligence upset by doubts. Even a legitimate killing is a shock to the psyche, proving that rationalizations float on the surface and don’t erase traumas by themselves. Prosaic assurances don’t come close to being adequate, as many returning soldiers have found. Even socially sanctioned killing cannot be lightly shrugged off. Just thinking “I did it for my country,” is not enough. Wholehearted affiliation with the Absolute is the only sufficient recourse. In other words, we have to be convinced in every fiber of our being. Our unconscious mind takes things at face value and cannot be as easily bamboozled as our conscious mind.

         Verses 16 and 17 can be related to psychological trauma in general. The usual response to distressing events is to try to put them out of mind, which partially represses the memories but does not neutralize them. This serves to increase their power over the conscious mind as unacknowledged sources of anxiety and fear. The earlier in life the trauma occurs, the less able the individual is to consciously get a handle on it. Conscious engagement from a neutral standpoint is needed to achieve the freedom indicated by the teaching. The help of a guru, therapist, or group of concerned friends is invaluable in overcoming natural blocks to self-awareness in traumatic events.

         Recent studies are showing the efficacy of using the mild psychedelic Ecstasy to treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Psychedelics allow conscious access to much more of our mind than usual, flooding dark and bruised areas with light. Meditation can have the same impact but is much harder to perform successfully, especially for those who are already suffering from mental distress. Meditation and yoga are psychotherapy for the sane. Ecstasy is proving to be an invaluable tool for bringing a cure to the whole mind, where mere ratiocination is inadequate. In fact, the futility of ordinary thought to impact the deep stress of traumatic events compounds the misery they cause, by adding a sense of personal failure into the mix.

         If victims of trauma, who are merely obeying the laws of nature with their pained responses, become fixated on being the cause of the whole mess, they become miserable and riddled with self doubt, and for no good reason whatsoever. They are among the ones referred to in verse 16 above as those “of unfinished intelligence,” who are akin to Arjuna at the start of the Gita. They need to think things all the way through, and not just stop with themselves as isolated actors, or worse yet, as isolated victims. This is the kind of boost Krishna’s teachings have given Arjuna. It is even more crucial since society has a tendency to blame the victim. Taking things personally may or may not be justified, but only a healthy person can decide correctly. Trauma victims who might quickly recover if given a sympathetic hearing and psychological support, can just as easily become chronically depressed over their undeserved ill treatment.

         Which of course invites a logical corollary: give traumatized people a sympathetic hearing and be careful not to seem judgmental. They are highly susceptible to further trauma by you, but you can also be an important healing factor. It’s similar to the presumption of innocence in jurisprudence. Surprisingly, many people feel an instinctive urge to punish or at least chastise those who have been victimized, possibly stemming from their own buried feelings of victimization, as if they are magically raised up by pushing others down. And don’t forget that everyone is suffering from some degree of trauma, visible or otherwise. Give everyone the benefit of the doubt, because we are all traumatized. Sanity and balance are rare achievements. With the right attitude, we can help make them much less uncommon.


18)         Knowledge, the knowable, and the knower are the threefold incentive to action; the mental instrument, the action, and the actor are the threefold aggregate-base of action.


         Jnana and karma (thought and action) are given a last assessment in accord with the three gunas. This verse merely introduces the discussion to follow, where aspects of them are broken down dialectically according to their three essential aspects as recognized in Vedanta. What is being paired here is the theoretical with the actual, theory with practice. Knowledge is metaphysical and action is physical, and a yogi always strives to maintain a proper relation between them. When action and its underlying conceptions are misaligned, we can expect problems to arise.

         Of the first group, aspects of thought, knowledge refers to the content of consciousness. The knower and what the knower is contemplating are the subject and object, the thesis and antithesis whose synthesis is knowledge. Ordinarily we distinguish them as being only loosely connected, but in unitive knowledge, jnana yoga, these are understood to be three facets of a single existent reality.

         As we slip out of the integrated state, we begin to conceive of ourselves as isolated individuals who are knowing certain items of knowledge. As a result, what had been a total knowledge situation becomes fragmented into a piecemeal collection of separate ideas with little impact on us. Unfortunately there is a qualitative difference involved, so the pieces never quite add up to totality, no matter how many you bring into play. They don’t seem to quite matter. Fragmentation causes a sense of dissociation between a person and what they know, a common malaise of modern humans. What we think no longer sustains us; instead it alienates us from an important part of ourselves. Because we crave wholeness, we are permanently dissatisfied with our partial understanding and bounce from one idea to another in a futile attempt to restore it. Yet the harder we cling to arbitrary beliefs, the more unbalanced we become.

         In a total knowledge situation there is no need to gather more bits of information, but once the unity is lost we have only partial awareness. The incentive to act is the attempt to regain total awareness. Additionally, when we act on the basis of partial knowledge we cannot be certain of the relevance of our actions. Only complete knowledge offers the possibility of action perfectly suited to the situation, and we approach it intuitively through penetrating contemplation. Wholeness is an ideal that can be approached but never quite attained through externalized efforts.

         As to the second group, it sounds like a tautology for Krishna to say that action is the basis of action. The intention is that unitive action contains the three seemingly separate aspects of thought, instrument, and their resulting expression. The odd term “aggregate-base” just means the three comprise the one.

         Like knowledge, action can also be broken down into a threefold structure when we analyze it. Pure action splits into the actor and their activities, all monitored by the guiding vision of the mind. There is the awareness of what is happening, plus what is being done and who or what is doing it. Unitive action, karma yoga, reduces them all to aspects of a single harmonious event in which action is happening.

         In the Indian conception, consciousness divides into two sides of subject and object, and awareness oscillates between them like the fluttering wings of a bee, moving so fast they appear to stand still. Our seemingly static images of life are really the products of such a rapid oscillation of consciousness, and at heart we are ineluctably connected to what appears to be “out there.”


19)         Even knowledge, action and actor are said, according to modality-difference, by way of their enumeration according to the modalities, to be of three kinds; hear you of them as they are actually.


         Krishna is now going to examine each of these categories—knowledge, action and actor—in terms of the three modalities: sattva, rajas and tamas. As the Gita becomes ever more practically-oriented toward the end, there is a sea change in the treatment of the gunas. The work recognizes that we are not always in a state of total absorption: we are going to be interacting with the world in its three general patterns. Where we have been taught earlier to stand outside the gunas’ rotating influence, now they are presented as grades of clarity, with sattva being the ideal, rajas the ordinary, and tamas the deranged. In such a vertical arrangement we would presume that being always sattvic was the goal of yoga. Oddly, it both is and isn’t. Sattva is best, tamas is worst, and rajas falls somewhere in between. And yet the yogi is directed to remain unaffected by them, dwelling in a state beyond all of them. This must be kept in mind throughout this section.

         Chapter XIV verse 5 asserts that all three gunas bind. It teaches us that sattva binds by knowledge conditioning, while rajas binds by action conditioning. A healthy mental life knits these two together. Tamas of course is hopeless, binding through delusion and laziness. It does not figure in a spiritual life except as obstacles to be overcome.

         As we reach the point of maximum practicality, Krishna is reminding us to take care to minimize the binding effects of everything we do. In this section the three gunas are not treated much differently than as fancy names for right (or best), ordinary and wrong. Here at least the Gita does not view them with the same sublime understanding as Narayana Guru does in his unitive philosophy, for instance, where they are all seen as essential aspects of the wheel of life. In the analyses that follow, the idea is to attain the sattvic attitude and minimize the rajasic and tamasic. This is a break with the earlier advice to transcend all three gunas. The rationale must be that pure advaita, nondual wisdom, does not accept the modalities, while a dual view takes them into account.


20)         That by which the unexpended Being is seen in all beings, undivided in the divided—know that knowledge to be sattvic.


         The sattvic states to be mentioned hereafter are all obviously the best, but we should not lose sight of the binding aspect of even the best attitude. This is precisely because it is an attitude, an orientation. In unitive consciousness there is not even the concept of pure Being within beings; there is only pure Being itself. When we distill it out we begin to focus on the many beings, but we can still see or remember that their essence is one. So sattva is binding, but only a little bit, and in such a way that the effect is still very positive.

         And how positive it is to see the oneness of life within the multitude! This is the vision that brings peace and amity between people, even those in very different circumstances. It cares for and nurtures the environment, knowing that too is the Absolute. It dares to imagine and appreciate the complex mysteries of life, energizing the quest for greater wisdom and understanding. A truly scientific and a truly spiritual attitude are indistinguishable within the clarity of sattva.

         Knowledge is inevitably partial, because no one can take in a full account of anything, but the more extensive our information the more sattvic it will be. We could break it down that a thorough knowledge is sattvic, knowledge where we know just enough to be strongly motivated is rajasic, and if we aren’t paying attention and have very little knowledge, we won’t see any reason to rise from our tamasic couch. It’s very interesting that too much or too little information both subvert action. We act in the middle range where unmet needs and ideals call for fulfillment.

         So sure, have a unitive vision. But when duality casts its net upon you, as it always does, hold fast to the pure sattvic vision and do not indulge in the egoistic delusions of tamas. And link your actions to the sattvic end of the spectrum.

         The spirit of it is nicely captured by Rumi in the poem Love in Absence, from his Mathnawi, (tr. R.A. Nicholson, Allen and Unwin, London, 1950.):


O Thou Whose soul is free from ‘we’ and ‘I’, O Thou

         Who art the essence of the spirit in men and women,

When men and women become one, Thou art that One;

         When the units are wiped out, lo, Thou art That Unity.

Thou didst contrive this ‘I’ and ‘We’ in order to play the                   game of worship with Thyself.

     That all ‘I’s and thou’s might become one soul and at last be          submerged in the Beloved.


Rumi’s advice is to make our every act a form of worship or appreciation of the divine, and to always remember its unifying essence. A yogi or scientist should see miracles everywhere in creation: there is absolutely nothing “ordinary” anywhere. If something strikes you as ordinary, you simply don’t have enough information about it.


21)         The knowledge which sees a multiplicity of beings as distinct in the different kinds, because of separateness—know that knowledge to be rajasic.


         Rajasic knowledge is the norm, the ordinary vision, unrelieved by philosophic insight into the unity of life. To the unexamined mind that does not dare to look beyond appearances, everything is distinct and unconnected in any natural way to the other dust motes of which the world is comprised. Needless to say, there is plenty of room for conflict in this vision, with everything outside representing a potential threat to each individual’s domain, which it clings to and defends with a range of mild to extreme ploys.

         It is very difficult to extricate ourselves from such a state, because it paints us into a corner. Rajasic people like to join forces with like-minded souls and revel in their shared values, as to a lesser extent do some sattvic and tamasic types. But rajasic values often accentuate and amplify themselves, spoiling for a fight. At least sattvic values always lead us to search for a wider embrace, a more open heart.

         For instance, so-called racial discriminations have inflamed hostility all over the globe, and since the human brain has an amazing capacity to draw the finest distinctions of skin color and facial form, genocide, slavery, and torture are among the terrible practices abetted by separatist ideologies. Modern science has, through genetic examination, finally been able to prove than in fact humans are a very close-knit family, a single race, all of us descendents of one tribe that nearly became extinct around 60,000 years ago in a devastating ice age, who then gradually spread back over the globe as the climate moderated. This accords with Krishna’s sattvic view. We really are one, on many, many levels. You merely have to look beneath the surface.

         The cure for the conflicts wrought by the various ill-considered discriminations is to begin to see the connections all around, how everything is dependent on everything else, and in particular how dependent we are on the good offices of thousands of other people we will never even meet, not to mention the natural beneficence that is always pouring over us in our air, water, sunlight and so on. Everyone we will ever meet is a relative, distant or near. I have always thought it would be fascinating if we could somehow know the connections we have to the people we pass on the street: fourth cousins, my uncle married to their sister, parents from the same small town as my mother, etc. Because of our ignorance, we walk past them and imagine they are strangers. Remember, this was the revelation that started the whole Gita. Arjuna looked at his enemies and saw only friends and family, and he could no longer fight them. Krishna then taught him a different way to fight: to fight with everyone instead of against them.


22)         But that which clings to one single effect as if it were the whole, without reason, without meaning, based on any principle, and insignificant—that is called tamasic.


         It’s a very good idea to see how we all have moments of sattva, rajas and tamas. It isn’t that we are always one or the other, though one is likely to be predominant, but at different times we may exhibit all these traits. Seeing them in ourselves, we can be more tolerant of others who may strike us as tamasic but who are apt to have better days, just as we do.

         As science probes the workings of the brain, we are learning that that venerable organ presents a neatly tied up package summary to our conscious awareness. We are not seeing “reality” at all, we are admiring its packaging, which has only a tiny amount of the data we have experienced with the whole brain, edited and choreographed for easy assimilation by our preoccupied (or unoccupied) consciousness. The Upanishadic rishis knew this from keen observation; now we have controlled studies using fancy equipment that reveal the same. Knowing that we are only aware of a small piece of the puzzle should impel us to always keep an open mind, but we humans share a nearly universal lazy streak.

         The range of knowledge between sattva and tamas, shading through rajas, can be likened to degrees of conditioning or prejudice in which our data summary is packaged. If there is a relatively close match, we call it sattvic, and Krishna insists we have to be aware of the interconnectedness of things to qualify. Simply going by surface appearances, which we now know are manipulated appearances, takes us into rajasic territory. When our package is put together mainly from prejudice, with very little relation to actual input, we move into the tamasic realm. A surprisingly large spectrum of “normal” thinking and behavior falls into the third category, which to a yogi epitomizes dullness and stupidity, if not violent hostility.

         Again, sattva is a broad view, rajas is more narrowly focused, and tamas, like Procrustes, mangles everything so it can be squeezed into a tiny, premade bed. It makes up its mind and then refuses to change, no matter what new information comes along. New information is the work of the devil.

         In one sense this is not so terrible. We begin a task with as open a mind as possible, testing all relevant possibilities. Once we have chosen the best, we taper down and become more and more focused on it while shutting out the rest. This permits our actions to be intelligently organized. The finale can even be somewhat mechanical, simply dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s, so there is no need for additional creative thinking. In this process all three gunas are perfectly healthy and normal. By contrast, modern pyramidal societies reserve the sattvic part for decision makers and the rajasic part for middle management, leaving only tamasic drudgery for the bulk of the workers. It’s inevitably demeaning for intelligent beings to perform endless tasks that have no room for independent thought in them. In places like Japan where the creative aspects are more broadly shared throughout the workforce, there is much more job satisfaction and overall excellence in performance.

         By far the most problematic form of tamas today is the state religion of market economics in which short term profit is the single effect considered in decision making. This tunnel vision is widespread on the individual as well as the collective levels. Factors such as ethics and morality, environmental impact, justice, sustainability and consequences to society, not to mention enjoyment in performance, are treated as extraneous stumbling blocks to the one absolute of rapid return on investment. What should be a single more or less insignificant factor among many is pared away from its context to satisfy simplemindedness. The result can be observed by anyone who has paid attention for a few decades as a plummeting quality of life, erosion of social stability, degradation of infrastructure, and a lust for warfare. Tamas is no joking matter!

         Tamasic thinking blinds us in many ways. Here’s another example. A bigot believes all members of a certain ethnic group are stupid. He might also feel quite confident they are all dirty, frightening, criminally inclined, whatever, but for now we’ll just say stupid. Once that is assumed, virtually any action that a member of that group does will be interpreted by the bigot as stupid. The stupidity is largely in the eye of the beholder. Even a Nobel Prizewinner will be thought of as merely a rare exception to the “fact” of the general stupidity of their “race,” or as someone who cleverly disguised their stupidity, or as someone who benefited from the stupidity of others less astute than the bigot. The same kind of activity that would be excused in another group, especially the bigot’s own, inevitably falls into the “confirmation” file in his prosecutorial folder. Such “obvious” truths, which are in fact pure projections, are flagrant and widespread cases of tamasic ignorance that often lead to tragedy.

         More subtly, many jobs seem innocuous enough out of context, but invisibly contribute to nefarious ends. If an employee doesn’t consider the big picture, or isn’t allowed to, they can console themselves that their inferior work is perfectly acceptable. Technological development is similar. “Hey, all I’m doing is testing chemicals to discover new properties,” or “I’m just testing some viruses on pigs.” So what if the results of the experiments will be used to build bombs or biological weapons? Because of the ubiquity of weapons development and other industrial hazards, it pays to have a tamasic attitude where you see, hear and speak no evil. But a yogi refuses to be unconscious of the repercussions of their behavior to the maximum extent possible. They can’t help but care a lot.

         Tamas doesn’t just cover prejudice and religious and political idiocy, it subtly permeates our self-image. Here’s an example from my experience. Early in life, because of the way I was raised, I was convinced that I was an unwelcome intruder in other people’s lives. Sometimes I was loved, but other times I was rejected, and the rejection really hurt. Nursing the wounds, I, like many young children, developed a conviction I was unwanted, and began to hang back on the periphery of events. It was very handy to have a simple formula to guide me through the complexities of human relations, and sometimes it was even right. Very quickly this skewed attitude became a fixture of my personality and blended into the background so effectively I would not be able to discern it for another fifty years, after a lifetime of restraining my natural inclination to love and be loved by my fellow beings.

         Other children, in the belief that ridiculing others as outsiders will help make them insiders, eagerly become abusive of the marginalized kids, which serves to confirm the outsiders’ conviction that they don’t belong and aren’t wanted. Very early on, the road to adulthood divides into insiders and outsiders, with both biases exaggerated and delusional.

         Such a penchant for self-suppression is widespread, and from my observation spiritual affiliations like the Gurukula are substantially made up of lifelong “outsiders” trying to find ways to restore their sense of worth. Entering the gate of any spiritual organization there is initially a strong sense of inside and outside, rightly or wrongly. It’s a palpable tension humans are keenly aware of. Successful groups actively counteract the reluctance this aggravates by welcoming new members and putting them at ease by pointedly dismissing any hint of exclusivity.

         Assumptions buried in the unconscious color much of everyone’s interpersonal relations. Looking back at my life, I can see how easily I accepted my marginalization from the mainstream. Even offhand comments had an undue impact, because they fit the tamasic formula I had already adopted. As adults, we come to learn than nobody really cares all that much about us, but knowing that we’re reasonably welcome many places doesn’t automatically cure our damaged predisposition about our place in the world. Tamasic conditioning has to be intentionally rooted out, by actively counteracting false assumptions whenever we notice them.

         When we see things we expect they make sense to us, while things we don’t expect are more likely to alienate us. So we naturally tend to confirm our prejudices and discount ideas that don’t reinforce them. The world acts like a broken mirror reflecting our skewed understanding.

         The tamasic mentality is easily mesmerized by a single notion, and the more pathetic the better, because there is a perverse pleasure in feeling sad. All of us at one time or another have fallen under the spell of an appealing idea, gotten excited about it, but later realized it was actually way off the mark. This is bound to happen to all beings who have to operate based on partial information. One aspect glimmers brightly for a moment and captures our attention, but only catches the sunlight from one particular angle, and once it passes it can never be revived. So you move on to the next opportunity.

         But truly tamasic personalities miss the last part where you realize your mistake. They remain fixated on myopic ideas, usually energized by traumatized emotions like jealousy, anger, and the dubious pleasure of inflicting pain on themselves or others. Often they are addicted to behaviors that promise escape but deliver bondage. After a while the question of extricating themselves and moving on to a better state does not even arise, and may even be fanatically opposed. Only a determined few ever break out of these dark depths of the human soul.

         So much energy has to be expended to simply become normal again! Think of the misery and wasted effort that could have been avoided if we had stayed normal all along. For many of us the struggle to renormalize is the primary challenge of our lives. With enlightened guidance a balanced mental state can be restored, at which time our life can begin to blossom.


23)         An action which is obligatory, performed without attachment, without affection or disregard, by one not benefit-motivated—that is called sattvic.


         It’s hard to conjure a more perfect summary of intelligent action than this: neutrally balanced in all directions. Ideally, we would live our lives poised to meet every eventuality, and we would calmly deal with the endless series of necessary tasks that life blesses us with. If we aren’t overly attached to our own plans, we will meet every contingency without either resentment or craving. A fully awake interaction with circumstances—and especially the people in them—is thrilling enough that we don’t need any additional stimulation.

         Obligatory here means the situation calls for it, not that some temporal authority figure has made you do it. Action doesn’t arise as a desire to accomplish something, but only means “rising to the occasion.”

         A good way to sum up action is that in sattva we are restraining our cortical functions, our waking consciousness, to a degree that permits the expertise of our unconscious to rise up and participate more fully in what we do. In rajas, conscious desires are forced the other direction, into the unconscious, where they produce complicating ripples of intentionality. Tamas is the state where we are neither open to inner promptings nor pressing forward with a program, we’re simply stagnating.

         All three attitudes are considered spiritual by many people, but the Gita’s concept of unitive action transcends them all, inviting us to ride the “onrushing wave” of the Absolute, so to speak. There are cosmic impetuses that we can tap into when we are at our best, and aligning our actions with them is the secret of the most effective creative thinkers and liberators of history. In our ordinary activity, though, there is also room for guna-colored behavior. We don’t have to be stupendous every moment!

         Sattva means we are channeling our innate proclivities, some of which are amazing and some of which are not so great. A few may even be awful. The important role for the conscious mind is to accurately distinguish which is which.

         Rajas holds sway in people who have mesmerized themselves to the point where they begin to see their expectations projected on the world around them. When conscious desires are injected into the unconscious, it obligingly responds by trying to shape its outlook to match. Needless to say, this is fraught with peril, because on the whole we are poor choosers in matters of the spirit, which is ever-new, uncharted territory. People who see divine beings everywhere, like fairies under flowers, the Virgin Mary in a tortilla, or their deceased guru on a street corner, are projecting rajasic desires into the world, and the results range from silly and trivial to deadly. Praying for a specific boon, like meditating on manifesting a new car, or going to a teacher with a fixed plan for them to unfold for you, are other forms of rajasic spirituality. You might get what you want, but you won’t be open to some extremely excellent possibilities that may not accord with your plans.

         Tamasic people include those who repeatedly perform fixed meditations, prayers, chants and the like. There is a widespread belief that these have salubrious effects, and in some cases they may, more or less accidentally, but a yogi seeks a more dynamic lifestyle. Suppression of the psyche is for the most part unhelpful, beyond curtailing the obvious faults. Guru Nitya amusingly likened a room filled with chanting worshippers to a deep well full of croaking frogs, briefly charming perhaps, but static and monotonous.

         Let’s take as an example that you very much desire to bring peace to the world, and you are trying to figure out just how to go about it. The very desire to bring about even such a laudable result shifts the action into rajas. Still, rajas and sattva working in harmony is the most dynamic guna combination, and a very great amount of good has come from it.

         Norman Cousins, in his book Anatomy of an Illness, quotes the then almost ninety-year-old Pablo Casals, the master cellist, on the role of the individual in bringing about world peace. In conversation they had come to the conclusion that the biggest problem was that the individual felt helpless:


“The answer to helplessness is not so very complicated,” Don Pablo said. “A man can do something for peace without having to jump into politics. Each man has inside him a basic decency and goodness. If he listens to it and acts on it, he is giving a great deal of what it is the world needs most. It is not complicated but it takes courage. It takes courage for a man to listen to his own goodness and act on it. Do we dare to be ourselves? This is the question that counts.”


This is the sattvic approach, and accords perfectly with the wisdom of the Gita. Great souls are found sprinkled throughout globe, each tapping into universal truth in ways that are unique to them and in keeping with their surroundings. Their contribution may seem small compared to the seemingly infinite need of stumbling humanity, yet it is indeed “giving a great deal,” another important drop in the quintessential bucket.


24)         But that action done with great strain, by one desire-prompted, or possessed of egoism, is called rajasic.


         Following up on how to achieve world peace or some such laudable goal, the rajasic ones want to organize, want to become politicians, want to start a revolution. The aim is exemplary, but the means is faulty. All that effort guarantees that by the time you are in a position to finally accomplish something positive, you are worn out or co-opted. You are pleased with the creature comforts your position has afforded you, and you don’t want to rock the boat any more. Even if successful, you will likely find yourself caught up in the momentum of the movement, with no options. Voila! You have become part of the problem, without realizing you have surrendered your high ideals.

         A keen observer can readily note an endless march of idealistic (sattvic) souls strutting and fretting on the world stage and gradually shedding their ideals in favor of “pragmatic considerations.” Before long they begin to decline invitations to actually implement their ideals because they are seen as distractions from their adopted programs, and soon they will be actively impeding their more idealistic compatriots, who do not strike them as practical enough. The rishis would describe this perennial human tendency as rajas replacing sattva.

          A rajasic vision can either be linked with sattva or tamas. With sattva, which includes awareness of the underlying unity of life, the activity generated will be aimed at fellowship and mutual support. When rajas is linked with tamas, a separatist tendency becomes entrenched in highly defended ghettos, poised to fight to maintain the cherished identities of the past.

         A sentence from Guru Nitya within a long letter about how to have a gurukula or ashram, has always rung in my mind:


If you do not want to be caught in the ever-horizontalizing mesh of a structured institution, be a respecter of each person’s freedom to be what they are and don’t expect more than what they can sincerely and spontaneously give without any demand from you. (Love and Blessings, 472)


The “ever-horizontalizing” demands of institutions are the tendency for sattva to become rajasic, for a vision to be swallowed up in petty details of actualization and administration. Once the structure is stabilized, it marks the onset of tamas.

         Even in a relatively simple organizational structure like a family, we can see how it begins with a lot of love and idealism, but rapidly becomes demanding of tremendous energy, and can easily descend into a static pattern with little or no joy in it. The two solutions are to treat it yogically and refuse to be caught in the first place, or to continually renew the sattvic level through an introduction of new shared visions.

         The desires that prompt us are not necessarily bad ones. In a family, we desire the very best for our children, and so we give them everything we can. We work hard to support them and take pains to teach them all we imagine they need to know. We diligently keep everything clean and neat. At least we struggle to resist negative desires, but the positive ones find us willing accomplices! A measure of this is fine, but we have to reserve plenty of time and space for our more creative endeavors, which are what we really want to pass on to our kids. If we don’t make room for serendipity, rajas is easily capable of dominating our whole life. We’ll be teaching our kids subconsciously to set their noses to the grindstone rather than how to evolve as liberated beings.

         None of these cautions should dissuade us from working to implement high ideals; it’s just that we’ll be more successful if we can retain the neutral attitude recommended as sattvic. Remember, the Gita isn’t advocating withdrawal from action, but rather expert action freed of all the impediments that bog down the average human. The key is to have a truly sattvic vision impelled by rajasic energy and steadied by a measure of tamasic stability.

         The alternative news is filled with reports of dedicated souls who have made terrific and crucial progress in overcoming the tamasic resistance of society. They have visualized a cause that appeals to their innate sense of justice, have thought carefully about how to implement it, and are putting their energies in the right places to have an impact. They are working to preserve wilderness, foster civil rights of all types, remove toxic chemicals from the food chain, promote renewable energy, you name it. There is no dearth of important causes that can lend meaning to your life by chipping away at a serious problem. Like turning the proverbial battleship, society’s inertial momentum is hardly noticed until you try to change its course, and then its titanic weight becomes apparent through its resistance to change—even highly beneficial change.

         As I invited all the way back in the first chapter, the ostensible enemy on the battlefield of the Gita, the Kauravas, can be taken to symbolize the heartless greed of organizations dedicated to amoral profiteering, exactly like the modern transnational corporations hell bent on consuming the earth without regard to long term sustainability. Arjuna has been busy learning from Krishna how to deal with them in a way that isn’t futile—something he couldn’t even imagine at the outset, where his options were either to fight to the death or run away. Now he knows enough to make a realistic contribution as an enlightened participant. It’s a tremendous achievement. We need plenty more of these great souls intelligently engaged with the world’s problems. Despite often being blacklisted by mainstream society, they are undaunted and forge ahead, heedless of being loved or hated by the guardians of the status quo. They are upholding the highest calling as taught by the Gita, and deserve boundless appreciation instead of repudiation.


25)         The action undertaken from confusion (of values), disregarding consequences, loss or injury, and human limitations—that is called tamasic.


         Tamasic action is likely so familiar it doesn’t require much elaboration. Sadly almost all of us know plenty of people who match this category, and we have undoubtedly spent some time there ourselves.

         Tamasic actors, ranging from mulish to lethal, include those who can be lured into a mob and sent out to kill and destroy in the name of world peace. Killing in the name of the Prince of Peace or the Loving God is the acme of the confusion of values. Too many advocates of peace are filled with hate. Religions and political parties demonize rival groups, pretending that they are the sole cause of the problems of the world in order to gain converts and amass power. The Gita assures us that anyone who goes along with them is at the very least a fool.

         All of us have had times when our hormones and traumatic memories clouded our thinking and we weren’t able to hold back from some risky undertaking, but a yogi strives to minimize such occasions. They almost always lead to trouble.

         The warning that a tamasic person tends to disregard consequences presents a subtle nuance of spirituality. On the one hand we are taught to not have expectations, while here we learn we should not ignore the likely outcome of what we do. At first blush these seem contradictory, but if properly understood they are not. A yogi is never asked to be voluntarily ignorant. The injunction against expectations means we can rest assured life will take several unexpected turns before we arrive at our destination, and if we hold to our expectations we will not be flexible enough to adjust. Here the point is that we should in fact take a look at the likely impact of whatever we do, and modify our behavior accordingly. There is nothing wrong with knowing that certain actions bring certain results. The recommendation to curtail expectations is in regard to longer-term outcomes, and is not about pretending that if we hit our thumb with a hammer it won’t hurt. This is a subtle business that is hard to explain in words, so it needs to be sorted out with some contemplative reflection.

         For that matter, the placebo effect is an instance when our subconscious expectations somehow initiate the body’s healing mechanisms, sometimes with miraculous results. Conscious affirmation alone seldom does the trick, unfortunately, and no surefire method has been developed to get this power to kick in. Usually it is some type of healer who gives you something, and afterward your inner curative powers start up. At the very least you do not want to suppress the placebo effect with negative expectations, so a neutral yet optimistic attitude is crucial. A yogi should study the nocebo and placebo effects, discern how we affect our fellow beings by what we say and do, and learn how to induce healthy attitudes in everyone they encounter.

         It can’t be emphasized enough that there is an implicit benevolence in the universe, symbolized here by Krishna, always pressing us to optimization of ourselves and our world. Rigid plans and anticipations stand as barricades to the unfoldment of this benevolence. We are invited to bring our conscious efforts into harmony with this latent influence as much as possible, and dropping expectations is a simple and effective technique for allowing it to happen.


26)         The actor, free from attachment, who avoids references to himself in the first person, endowed with firmness and zeal, unmoved by success or failure, is called sattvic.


         The last three verses dealt with action; now we examine the actor who performs the action.

         Saying “I” is an important reference in any conversation. The essential thing to relinquish is the exaggerated sense of value we tend to place on the I, and not initiate action based on any superficial impulse where we stand out over everyone else. Action should spring from the needs of the situation, which may be considered aspects of the Absolute beckoning invitingly to the actor.

         Just as young children name themselves in the third person, as if they were just like anyone else in the room, avoiding the use of “I” can be done without undue emphasis. However, this apparent injunction has often been taken literally, by Narayana Guru and many others, who referred to themselves in the first person plural. It sounds a little awkward and even pretentious to modern ears, but it can be taken as soft and sweet just as easily. It is intended as a simple means to reduce the ego.

         Of course, “we” is just as much the first person as “I.” It would really sound dumb to call yourself “you” or “he” or “she.” I do recall that on some really deep psychedelic excursions, where my personality and body seemed utterly foreign to me, a reference of any kind to myself was inconceivable. But in ordinary consciousness there is nothing wrong with it, so long as it’s essentially a place holder.

         The key in this matter is freedom from attachment. The “I” has become a dictatorial force without our even realizing it. We have to examine the underpinnings of the “I” to see whether it is nothing more than a handy point of reference or if it represents the secret ambitions of a selfish agenda.

         Between the self-effacing recommendation to play down the ‘I’ while still maintaining “firmness and zeal” lies another veiled dialectic, and a most important one at that.

         If our motivations come from always thinking “I, I,” we are limiting ourself to superficial rational plotting. When we open ourselves to input from the rest of our brain by subsuming the I-sense in it, a wave of more profound motivations can sweep us along. Partnership with the inner impetus brings confidence and a zest for life, which is the state of mind called sattvic here. The steady confidence will not be shaken by the inevitable successes and failures that accompany the passage through life.

         Actually the word translated as firmness, which will return in verse 29, includes in the relevant definition “satisfaction, content, joy,” meaning there is confidence and a “rightness” within the firmness. It is not the firmness of a shaky position that is being forced forward by strength of will, it sits on the firm ground of deep contemplative assessment.

         Firmness is of course to be expected in any course of action, yogic or otherwise, but zeal is often associated with zealotry and the zealots who run wild with their personal program, callous to its impact on others. We have to be careful know the difference between zeal and zealotry, enthusiasm and mania.

         Zealots are quite simply fanatics, but fanaticism is utterly foreign to the Gita, despite the fact that there are fanatics that use even its supreme openness to justify their imperious and intolerant stands. Some overzealous Gita partisans seem eager to take on the faults of the Semitic religions, with nearly every sentence beginning “The Lord says” this or that, as if they are ready to carry out Krishna’s orders, whatever they might imagine them to be. I suppose they are substituting “The Lord” for the ‘I’ that has been cautioned against here, but this is a risky strategy, as history has amply demonstrated. Citing scripture to justify violence and hatred is the ultimate denigration of the scripture, as should be abundantly clear by now.

         Those zealots must not have studied their Gita thoroughly enough. We are moving toward the climactic moment when Arjuna will assure Krishna he is eager to obey him, and Krishna responds that he is mistaken: he has been teaching him how to make his own decisions intelligently, and he will definitely not be telling him what to do. No Lord is issuing any orders. No one else is going to direct his life for him. That’s his job.

         Zeal means energy, intensity even. The Random House Dictionary has it as “fervor… eager desire or endeavor; enthusiastic diligence; ardor.” The zeal must be directed toward our own spiritual growth, not that of others. Zealots avoid self-correction by directing their critical energies toward those they hold in contempt.

         Probably I should change the wording of this verse to enthusiasm in place of zeal. The point is simply that we should love what we do. It’s not complicated. If we don’t love what we are doing, we should find a way to move on to something we do love. Life is lovable. There should be a natural affinity between every actor and their actions. Damaged people can love some terrible things, so there is more to it than just love, of course. The intelligence has a role of insuring that the action is justifiably lovable. If we love to hurt or covet, there is an underlying perversion of the system. Krishna’s course of instruction should have isolated and corrected all such deviations by now, so that we can safely graduate to a loving way of life we can honestly be enthusiastic about.

         It seems that enthusiasm has been crushed out of most people nowadays. Modern humans tend to be mere dabblers, lukewarm in their spirituality, but the ones who really get into it are of a different stripe. They are excited. They cook.

         Nataraja Guru was always amazed that humans could be so casual about such a magnificent subject at the very heart of existence. He often talked of “nice ladies pouring tea,” meaning a type of “Theosophical Society indulgence” where refreshments were politely served and a talk given, with a plate for donations passed around afterwards. He said if you didn’t fall to the ground when you uttered the word God, the word was devoid of content, a meaningless fiction. Spirituality should be electrifying, or it was a mere mockery.

         Ideally a spiritual seeker, after a long time pondering the subject, exudes a quiet confidence and enthusiasm. Early on there has to be some naivety and plenty of eagerness to imbibe the guru’s words, but this settles down into the peaceful actor we are discussing here at the end of the course. We have learned a lot, so we no longer make the mistake of wanting to foist what we need to learn on everyone else. We know that most people are not interested or are at a different stage of their evolution, so we should reserve our unchecked excitement for others with a similar bent. What we regard as a revelation is likely to be irritating to most others and will cause offense to them, so we restrain ourselves in respect to outward evidence of our state of mind. The entire eighteenth chapter may be seen as a final adjustment to get this harmonious way of interacting with the world exactly right, and verse 67 makes the restraint unequivocal: “This is never to be spoken about by you to one spiritually undisciplined, nor to one devoid of devotion, nor to one indisposed to listen, nor to one who denies Me.” Many of those covered by this injunction are sincere seekers in their own right and not to be in any way treated as inferior. It is simply not appropriate to harangue people who aren’t interested in what you yourself have discovered and hold dear. And that’s totally fine.

         Guru Nitya once told about how after he had had a breakthrough revelation, he was ecstatic with the realization that we are one, that everyone was his brothers and sisters. For a while he went around hugging every person he met on the street. As he gradually became able to handle the intensity of his feelings, he began to notice how embarrassing the hugging was to his fellow Indians, who are never demonstrative in public and recoil from physical contact. So he internalized his feelings of intimate connection and adopted an outwardly restrained demeanor that was more appropriate. Both his sense of ‘I’ and his outward zeal settled into a neutral posture of dynamic but quiet intensity. Nothing was lost, and much was gained.

         It’s a highly mysterious business why one person becomes an avid seeker and another does not. Many are content to live out their lives from one day to the next, getting by with as little extra effort as possible. But for some there is a powerful urge to look into the meaning and structure behind the surface play. Possibly we will never be able to pinpoint a causal factor. It can simply be considered a blessing… or a curse. The curse is what Rene Daumal called “an incurable need to understand.”

         Similarly, why is it that some people are compassionate and considerate of other creatures’ feelings, and others can heap misery upon humans and animals alike without the faintest qualm? Krishna’s zeal is also the burning passion of caring and wanting to minimize suffering wherever possible. One of the marks of a true seer is the loving kindness that pours out, as tenderly for the least of God’s creatures as for the most. As Jesus put it, “Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” (Matt. 25:40). How is it possible to ignore the pain and suffering needlessly inflicted every minute of every day in every acre of this blessed Earth? The least we can do is minimize the pain we cause.

         Notions of success or failure are recognized by yogis as purely relative. The I Ching is well aware of how one leads to the other in an ongoing cycle of opposition. On reflection, everyone should be able to see how success has led them to become self-satisfied and then to miss something important, and also how challenges and hardship have made them stronger. A favorite parable along these lines is attributed to spiritual guide Catherine Marie Heath:


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 the stable.”

  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 unknown.”

  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.”


27)         The actor, passionate, prompted by desire for benefits, greedy, violent-natured, maladjusted, with moods of exaltation and depression, is called rajasic.


         There are many ways to characterize the gunas, and because of this it is a fit subject for contemplation, so you can apply them to your own circumstances. One simple classification scheme for the actor would be that listening is sattvic, talking is rajasic, and doing neither is tamasic, if it doesn’t reach beyond surface consciousness. If it does, it fulfills the advice to transcend all three modalities. But if we are simply wrapped up in our own fantasy world, we neither listen nor have anything to offer when reality comes knocking.

         Another interpretation is that sattva, rajas and tamas are different ways of monitoring our knowledge and actions. Sattvic monitoring is nuanced and in tune with the needs of the situation; rajasic monitoring focuses on “getting the job done,” selecting on the basis of what furthers one’s personal plans and expectations; and tamasic monitoring is the placid acceptance of whatever comes along out of laziness or indifference. “Why bother?” is its mantra. Again, it is not unusual for this type of tamas to be mistaken for an advanced spiritual state, but in the Gita’s estimation it definitely is not.

         Transcendence, which often manifests as creativity, is when we have achieved a state where we can relinquish both positive and negative monitoring and allow what will happen to happen. It entails a happy blend of developed talents combined with openness to new possibilities. Recent studies of improvisation, or musical creativity, reported by Charles J. Limb in Scientific American magazine (May 2011), have shown that it flourishes in the absence of conscious monitoring:


As far as my studies have revealed, creativity is a whole-brain activity. When you’re doing something that’s creative, you’re engaging all aspects of your brain. During improvisation, the prefrontal cortex of the brain undergoes an interesting shift in activity, in which a broad area called the lateral prefrontal region shuts down, essentially so you have a significant inhibition of your prefrontal cortex. These areas are involved in conscious self-monitoring, self-inhibition, and evaluation of the rightness and wrongness of actions you’re about to implement. In the meantime, we saw another area of the prefrontal cortex—the medial prefrontal cortex—turn on. This is the focal area of the brain that’s involved in self-expression and autobiographical narrative. It’s part of what is known as a default network. It has to do with sense of self.

  If we can understand what actually changes in the brain to perhaps reduce conscious self-monitoring—what a lot of expert musicians are doing and what amateur musicians are unable to do—that’s a pretty interesting target for someone to consider when trying to learn to become an improviser. I think that has implications for describing what gives rise to excellent improvisation and what experts do naturally.


There is an obvious connection here with yoga, which is another way to maximize our whole-brain coordination and liberate our abilities. The point of not being overly self-critical is to free ourselves to be more expressive and creative in just the way improvising musicians are able to.

         A third way to conceive of the gunas is that sattva is introverted, rajas in extroverted, and tamas is neither, being merely stuporous. It is deadened, overly conditioned.

         Extroverted, rajasic moods tend to follow a sine wave pattern, with alternating brightness and darkness. The verse paints a strongly negative picture of rajas, emphasizing its dark side. Krishna is definitely not trying to make the gunas appealing here, and a rajasic attitude leads to frustration when its desires are thwarted. This type of confusion of values was extensively described in Chapter XVI.

         I often think of the poet Robert Frost, who said that he didn’t become a revolutionary in his youth because he didn’t want to become conservative in his old age. He instinctively realized that when expectations are thwarted it breeds bitterness. If we have high hopes and put all our energy into actualizing them, we will become disillusioned if our achievements fall short of our goals. Our disappointment may lead us to despise “the whole damn human race.” Frost was intuitively aligned with the Gita’s yogic call to remain in balance at all times.


28)         The actor who is a misfit, crude, stubborn, deceitful, malicious, lazy, despondent and procrastinating, is called tamasic.


         Probably there is not much need to elaborate this verse—we have all known such people, and we should be familiar with our own proclivities for the same. When the ego digs in and entrenches itself in a firm commitment to its selfish desires, this is the result. Tragically, it can become habitual if we are not inspired to extricate ourselves from the murk. On occasion I say a heartfelt secular prayer to whatever beneficent forces have steered me away from such tendencies, despite their immediate appeal.


29)         Hear now the three-fold difference of reason and firmness also, according to the modalities of nature, O Winner of Wealth, to be set forth fully and severally.


         Reason is the primary tool of the actor, and so is dealt with immediately after it. Guru Nitya Chaitanya Yati makes its importance clear in That Alone:


The whole purpose of a spiritual pursuit is to learn to discriminate between truth and falsehood, so that what you consider to be happiness is not an illusion but a reality. Thus, discrimination becomes the most important part of the search. (592)


         In his Yoga Shastra commentary, Nitya paraphrases the Buddha on the use of reasoning:


The yogi makes every effort not to be a howler telling untruth or a simpleton believing in something because somebody said it or it is written somewhere.... In the last days of Lord Buddha, he told his disciples: “Do not believe in a statement because it came from an ancient tradition. Do not believe because many believe. Do not believe because it is said by someone far more aged than you. Do not believe because somebody is threatening to kill you unless you believe. Diligently inquire, deeply ponder, and, if after careful examination, you are convinced of the irrefutability of the truth before you, accept it and stand by it.” (243)


         The discussion to follow on reason exhibits an exquisite pairing of terms, much more apparent in the Sanskrit original but plain as day even in English. As Krishna explains, reason always considers the flip side of every coin. Sattva grasps both sides in correct relation, rajas twists them to its own ends, and tamas gets them backwards.

         Firmness was introduced in verse 26, and refers to how well and for what purpose we hold onto our intentions. The sattvic version adheres to high-minded aims, while rajasic types doggedly pursue materialistic goals, or stick to a fixed notion of duty. ‘Duty’ is second only to ‘Lord’ in being promiscuously parroted by uncritical Gita devotees. Tamasic firmness is the tenacity with which we cling to deleterious behaviors and addictions. We’ll look a little deeper into all six categories as Krishna discourses on them.


30)         The reason that knows the positive way of action and the negative way of inaction, what ought to be done and what ought not to be done, what is to be feared and what is not to be feared, the binding and the liberating actions, O Arjuna, is sattvic.


         Four pairs of reciprocal factors are presented in this verse, and we are expected to intelligently discriminate between the good and bad ones. Note that (other than the first set) these are not dialectical pairs to be united into a synthetic understanding, as has so often been the case in the Gita, but simple dichotomies. Where spiritual dialectics equalizes opposites, in making ordinary moral decisions we select the best option. Where yoga aims to achieve an elevated state via mental neutrality, it should be clearly distinguished from these more basic problems. As we have often noted, morality and spirituality, while they may overlap to some degree, are in reality two distinct issues. And where a spiritual outlook infuses morality very profoundly, morality itself does not affect spiritual progress, despite a widespread belief to the contrary. It is a side issue that usually detracts from spiritual focus.

         How we decide what to do has a most profound effect on our whole life, so it’s amazing that these matters are routinely given short shrift. Where a sense of urgency impels us to hasty decisions we may live to regret, reflection is likely to supply options more in keeping with our long term well-being. Unfortunately, bondage is a profitable enterprise and liberation isn’t taxable, so the social pressure is all on the side of staying stuck.

         The first dichotomy is between action and inaction, both of which have legitimate roles in spiritual life. While the Gita generally favors action over inaction, there are times when inaction is the superior choice. Knowing when to participate and when not to is a matter for intelligent assessment, and as we have already discussed at length both can go together.

         The Gita as a whole, of course, teaches the mystical union of action and inaction as its main theme. When Arjuna was confronted with action that he couldn’t handle he wanted to run away and become a recluse, but Krishna insisted he stop where he was and find the middle ground between fight and flight. After he was fully instructed in the mysteries of life (now, in other words) he can stand up as a wise soul and go forward, maintaining the dynamic tension between action and inaction at every step.

         What ought and ought not to be done is essentially a subset of action and inaction, or perhaps simply of action. Our ordinary mind is happy when it doesn’t have to choose, when all decisions are settled in advance, but that is not the way of liberation. Bringing in our unconscious wisdom through yogic contemplation helps us to make complicated decisions that are not preordained.

         Whether or not to be afraid is a good place to bring in rationality, because we tend to fear what we don’t understand. The only challenge here is that many people believe that spirituality makes you unafraid of anything, and so they do dumb things sometimes in a misguided belief that they are protected by the gods or some such. A lunatic waving a gun around is to be feared. A hissing cobra is to be feared. A tobacco cigarette—one of the most addictive substances on earth—is to be feared. Fear at its best is our inner good sense sending us a warning. It is important to intelligently decide whether it is this helpful kind or merely a projection of past fears and wounds overlaid onto the present, in which case the fear is obscuring rather than enlightening.

         It is essential to know what types of action are liberating and which are binding; otherwise we will become more and more mired in necessity. Attachments often arrive in attractive packages, while liberating activities appear daunting and even threatening. We absolutely must not go by appearances in this matter.

         There is no hard and fast rule as to what actions are binding and which are liberating: each will have to be examined individually. These considerations are shaded by the parameters of happiness given in verses 36-39, where it is pointed out that some liberating acts are binding at first, and many binding acts are liberating at first—drug addiction being a perfect example. It’s such a relief, such a great feeling! And all of a sudden you are stuck. This means we can’t rely only on first impressions, but must scrutinize everything, bringing in all the valid information we can access. Unfortunately, not all information is valid, but careful scrutiny also serves to discriminate good information from bad.

         Any complex skill is binding early on, in the sense that repetitive practice is required to develop it. At some point, however, the skill takes wing, and the actor soars. Practice becomes performance. Yoga itself requires diligence and persistent effort, and only after much learning do the liberating effects begin to show. Some people imagine they know something right away, but they almost always are deluding themselves. You can’t fake yogic wisdom any more than you can fake expertise on the violin, though of course there are the rare few who seem to have done their preparation in previous lives, since they progress so rapidly.

         Yoga study differs from most religious practice in accepting that ignorance is an unavoidable part of our lives. It doesn’t pretend that its followers are all-wise and special, that they’ve made the crucial decision merely by beginning the practice. In place of accepting the “word of God,” as it is interpreted by powerful figures, we are called upon to dig down and discover it for ourselves, always and forever. Blasphemy to a yogi is not the refusal to accept the common wisdom and kowtow to its imaginary tenets but the insistence on the validity of false assumptions.


31)         That reason which takes right and wrong, the permissible and the banned, in a sense incompatible with reality—that O Arjuna, is rajasic.


         Further reinforcing that we are dealing with matters outside of yogic dialectics, this and the next verse make it as plain as possible by focusing on right and wrong, which do not figure in the sattvic attitude at all. The Gita does not omit simple practicalities from its scope, and here just before the end is the appropriate time for these issues to receive a nod from the Guru. Questions of right and wrong generate a quagmire that sucks us down into the murky depths of false values. The rajasic version manipulates them for personal gain, while the tamasic version is so divorced from reality as to be at home in the swamp.

         A glance at national politics in just about any nation will reveal bombastic blowhards spouting off about right and wrong in ways that seem to turn our grasp of reality upside down. With a minimal effort it is easy enough to discern the self-interest that is the true parameter of their dissimulation. A yogi, unlike a non-contemplative person, is expected to not be taken in by the smoke and mirrors.

         The rajasic mind is always scheming to justify its plans, selectively shaping the facts of the moment to fit its predetermined agenda. This is a nearly universal behavior among humans, so scientific experiments, for example, are carefully designed to minimize the often unconscious warping of results by participants.

         The main thing to note here is that reason is used to make the determination between right and wrong. This is not a matter of docilely following rules. The rishis well know that laws are inflexible and often harsh and unjust. Each of us is called upon to decide their merit, bringing our best understanding to every situation. Once a decision has been made, though, it makes sense to adhere to it. We don’t have to spend our whole life in a quandary over every detail.

         Many rules are crafted by rulers who are more interested in preserving their dominant position than fostering a healthy egalitarian world for all to live in. Their delineation of right and wrong does not match reality, it is skewed in their favor. A yogi should not seek permission from a flawed set of guidelines, but must always thoroughly examine the situation. If it matters, that is. There is no point in scrutinizing every silly law that robotic humanity wraps itself in, if it can be safely avoided.

         There is little difference between taking right and wrong in a sense incompatible with reality and reversing them as in the tamasic state in the next verse. It’s probably a matter of degree more than anything. Rajas is confident but mildly wrong, while tamas is complacent but seriously wrong.


32)         That reason enveloped in darkness, which regards wrong as right, and sees all values pervertedly, O Arjuna, is tamasic.


         This category would easily include static religious beliefs that insist on individuals following superstitious guidelines in their tradition and not under any circumstances thinking for themselves.

         The human race is periodically plagued with tamasic outbursts, when “true believers,” their reasoning perverted by adherence to poorly understood or toxic doctrines, rampage through the citizenry. Indeed, humans have had very few historical periods free of stringent religious and political oppression. Oppressors often use spurious reasoning to defend their tactics, the all-purpose God being a favorite. The Gita shows this is nothing new. There seems to be a fatal flaw in the human brain that permits it to be satisfied with half-baked thinking that can justify all manner of viciousness. The Gita is but one of many appeals made by wise thinkers across the globe to try to wean humans away from the endless propagation of misery.

         Due to dissociation with the interconnectedness of all beings, political and military schemers feel free to treat life as expendable and cheap, cynically plotting murder and mayhem in the mad delusion that they are themselves immune from the consequences. They regularly convince themselves that their actions are necessary and even patriotic. Any survey of history would produce an endless stream of examples of tamasic reasoning lethally applied to everyone within reach.

         Gun worship, a peculiar mania of the United States, is a fine example of tamasic reasoning. Deadly weapons have become the absolute measuring rod of a number of issues, objects of adoration in a sense. Their misuse is downplayed, with the result that the US has by far the world’s highest number of gun deaths outside of a war zone. Statistical studies have found that a family member is over twenty times more likely to be the victim of a firearm in the house than an intruder, but the belief that guns make you safer is undiminished by such facts. Any suggestion that it is a bad idea to keep guns in the house is met with explosive hostility.

         The Buddha taught that hatred never dispels hatred, it only magnifies it, while love has at least a chance, but tamas is resistant to all sensible input. Hatred is a closed system. One of my generation’s antiwar slogans, echoing the Buddha, is “Fighting for peace is like having sex for chastity.” Waging war for peace is about as perverted as an idea can get.


33)         The firmness by which the activities of mind, vital functions, and the senses are kept from deflecting (from the true path) by yoga, is sattvic.


         Firmness or steadfastness may seem an unusual category, but this is eminently practical advice, coming just as the Gita is preparing us to carry on with our life in an enlightened manner. Many of us have probably wondered why some types of doggedness are considered positive and some negative. This section gives us some clues. Being “open to the Absolute” can sound like you should always follow the impulse of the moment, but this is one of the paradoxical tightropes we have to walk. We have to be open to new input and yet firm in our commitment to the right ways of life we envision, simultaneously. Guru Nitya describes firmness as “the purposive inner cohesion which attunes the mind, senses and action to the performance of a singled-out motivational endeavor.” (Gita, 432)

         It is crucial that the firmness is maintained by yoga rather than mere strength of will. What this means is that when the mind and body are deflected from an endeavor we don’t just press ahead with brute willpower, insisting on having our way. The deflection is countered by bringing in the opposing element and synthesizing them together. In this way the cause of the deflection is rooted out, and with repeated yoga practice it ceases to be an impediment. It becomes subsumed in understanding. Where willpower builds up resistance, demanding ever greater effort, yoga melts obstacles, making the journey progressively more delightful.

         The “progressive” part is what distinguishes sattva from pure unitive action. In a unitive state there are no deflections, and thus no need for progress: everything is exactly as it should be. The gunas kick in when we reenter the world of give and take.

         We are not simply to do battle with our obstacles, we must embrace them and wrestle with them until they surrender their meaning to us. They are actually an integral part of our being. Where brute force leaves carnage all over the place, a harmonious attitude succeeds without bloodshed. Narayana Guru inspiring the peaceful transformation of South India from a harsh and cruel feudal society to a progressive egalitarian state is a perfect example of how this can play out. He didn’t take sides; he merely upheld a unitive vision, and the current of history was channeled to a number of terrific outcomes.

         Nataraja Guru has translated dhritih as firmness, which several commentators translate as ‘will’; Radhakrishnan has it as ‘steadiness’ and Aurobindo ‘persistence’. These are all shades of the same thing. I prefer firmness not only because that’s what the root means, but because ‘will’ can have a sense of personal whim carried forward by force, basically the rajasic type of firmness. Sattvic firmness or persistence, by contrast, implies a well-chosen path that is being pursued without undue effort. However it may be translated, it is clearly not an utterly absolute value, because there can be good or bad doggedness, helpful or deleterious willfulness. Hence the need to spell out grades of firmness, as Krishna is doing.

         Radhakrishnan does helpfully add that the power of dhritih is “proportional to our detachment from regrets over the past and anxieties for the future.” Homing in on the present increases our focus exponentially, as artists and meditators are well aware.

         The sattvic version of firmness relates to perseverance in working toward a goal. If people merely followed their whims, we would live in a world of dilettantes. It takes great tenaciousness to become a fine dancer or musician, to complete a novel, invent a new product, or even build a bridge or other complicated structure. And yes, for those so inclined, maintaining the pressure of their philosophical or scientific enquiry takes them beyond the neophyte stage to increasingly refined insights or achievements. A Vedantic compliment is to be considered a kutastha, a “solid as a rock” or well-founded seer. When you see truth it is easy to hold to it; when it remains elusive your ideas are sure to waver. Steadiness is thus a sign of wisdom, as long as it’s enlightened. The darker versions are described in the next two verses.

         How to properly exercise our will in order to hold firm to a spiritual pursuit is a perennial field of mental conflict and confusion. The “default setting” is often that we should follow the Will of God instead of our own egotistical will. Of the many problems this occasions, the thorniest is how to distinguish just what the Will of God is. Do we follow that voice in our head that seems to be coming from outside, but is more likely to be a detached element of our own psyche? Do we bow to the popular concept of God’s Will prevalent in our time? Do we hear about it on television? Should we turn over our internal guidance system to our favorite preacher or guru? Most of us are bedeviled with a sense that we know (or should know) what to do based on the agglomeration of prejudices and propaganda we have been stuffed with, as Gurdjieff puts it, but the Gita has weaned us far away from those dependency syndromes. Putting someone else in charge is a recipe for disaster, especially for a yogi.

         How to correctly determine the Will of God is really quite a perplexing problem, but a significant amount of the Gita’s teachings are aimed at liberating us from the confusion that sort of conundrum brings about. By now we should be becoming confident in our own judgment, tantamount to our spiritual “graduation” looming just ahead.

         The split between the Will of God and the “will of me” is yet another polarity to be united by yogic or dialectic synthesis. Vedanta proclaims that each and every one of us is the Absolute—all we have to do is discover what this means. Nataraja Guru offers this highly insightful contribution on the subject:


The confusion between the rival Wills of God and man… has vitiated much of Western mysticism. In Vedanta, it is not a sacrilege but a merit to say straightaway, “I am God.” There are no ecclesiastical authorities to persecute individuals as in the cases of Descartes, Bruno, Spinoza, Eckhart and many others who had always to keep an eye open against inquisitional orthodoxy. This means, they could not always openly say what they wished.

Thus, it is the “I” that links all grades of functional units of activity from prime matter to the highest Good. This “I” runs through all mystical or spiritual values from the bottom to the top or vice versa, eliminating the obnoxious distinction between obeying the “Will of God” and one’s own true Will or voice within. In keeping with a unified Science of the Absolute they are treated here as interchangeable at all levels. (An Integrated Science of the Absolute, Vol. II, p.389)


         Another characteristic of firmness is that it is an outgrowth of our thirst for spiritual transformation. Since our minds are predisposed to become complacent very quickly, there has to be a burning desire to go beyond the mere quieting of unease, to seek the Absolute, the highest value. Otherwise we’ll quit as soon as the heat is off. Firmness is fueled by enthusiasm. The various grades of motivation were examined in VII, 16. Most have their shortcomings, but Krishna is unequivocal that the pure desire for wisdom is the best. Wisdom is thrilling, and imbibing it sustains and inspires us at every moment. It is not simply a palliative for unhappiness but a true leap into immortality.


34)         But the firmness by which one holds fast to duty, and pleasure, and wealth, desirous of the results of each when the occasion presents itself—that firmness is rajasic.


         The first rajasic quality is holding to dharma, usually translated as duty. Absolutist dharma is duty to the truth of our inner self, but relative dharma, which is under consideration here, is the popular type, referring to fulfilling one’s obligations to society.

         Manipulators always try to convince people that doing what they are told is their dharma, and they often have their way, to their enduring benefit. But the whole point of Krishna’s long discourse in the Gita is to bequeath Arjuna with the ability to know what to do more expertly than following any hard and fast rule or external authority. This notion will be elaborated in verses 47 and 48 below.

         Let me reiterate for one last time: the standard line is that over the course of the Gita Arjuna learns his duty, and by doing it everything is set right. This is false. He casts off all external duties and obligations to find his real self, his innate dharma, after which whatever he does intelligently is true to both himself and the needs of the situation. He is now free to act according to his own lights, which are most likely to succeed once they are in tune with the total context. Krishna will present him with his graduate diploma—acknowledgment of his full freedom—very soon.

         Staying true to yourself is actually very difficult, and even a Gita graduate may make plenty of mistakes. Yet this is by no means a valid reason to shoulder externally determined duties in place of digging deeper for the truth, since those are also riddled with errors and anachronisms. A guru may guide you for a while, but then you must learn to walk on your own. Commandments may serve a purpose by erecting a crude basis for ethical living for ignorant people, but that still only provides a rough stage on which the drama of life is to be played out. Likewise, some rajasic dharma is fine up to a point, but the sattvic version requires moment-to-moment alertness that can’t take the time to look up the proper response in a codified text. It can only spring from within.

         The key to recognizing rajas is whether you are desirous of results or not. Craving results can be a very successful strategy, make no mistake about it. You can get so many things: pleasure and wealth and all that. The Gita wants you to know that those things are binding, but if you want to be bound to worldly fascinations, who is there to stop you? It’s hardly necessary to even mention it, since scheming for particular ends is nearly ubiquitous. But a seeker of truth has other fish to fry.

         Just as in the story recounted in (I, 2) where Duryodhana and Arjuna approached Krishna and the former chose the weapons and the latter the friendship and bipolarity, you can do it either way. One way leads to complications and one to simplification, one to bondage and one to liberation, but you are free to choose. Bondage is always very tempting, but the Gita is for those who, like Arjuna, have chosen the latter course and are in need of some wise advice.

         The rajasic attitude is very clearly the norm of modern social thinking. You map out a self-oriented series of goals, and then figure out how best to bring them about. Being in tune with the natural harmony of life is for “stupids.” “Woolgathering” to discover who you really are is a waste of precious time. Better to adopt a model, preferably one that will keep you out of hell after you die, and shape yourself to fit the Procrustean bed. Yet those chopped to fit the mold are secretly resentful of those who decline the honor. Rajasic firmness thus leads to conflict and jealousy, where sattvic firmness leads to community.

         Even firmness in adhering to scriptural teachings must not be doctrinaire. Outer instructions no matter how excellent are a form of duty. That kind of duty is always static and rigid, and thus spiritually dead. Following rules is easy for some people, and its very simplicity is attractive, but there is little or no room for creativity. Creativity indicates aliveness, and is a key element in spiritual growth and evolution. Due to the mechanical way we’re educated, with every question having a single “right” or “best” answer, we have lost our flexibility in thinking. But life is ever new, so rules and pat answers come after the fact. They can help us cope with aftermaths, but are of little use in setting us free from fixed perspectives.

         People may smugly believe they’ve got it made when they select a “surefire” belief system, and spend a lifetime trying to make it work, but as we’ve learned that’s mainly wishful thinking based on clever salesmanship. A system should be considered to be of spiritual value only if it teaches you to transcend it. This is reminiscent of Gödel’s second incompleteness theorem: “Formal systems which assert their own consistency are inconsistent.”

         Scripture can be a fine guide, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ponder what it means and how it might be expressed differently in different circumstances. Scripture is not to be taken “literally,” whatever that might mean. It should serve as a stimulus to incisive thinking and questioning. None of it is self-evident; if it is, it isn’t scripture, at least by the Gita’s definition. Then it is only smriti, a code of laws to remember, which is far inferior to sruti, revealed wisdom.


35)         That by which a stupid man does not give up sleep, fear, grief, despondency and wantonness—that firmness is tamasic.


         Tamasic firmness or willfulness occurs when we listen to our own wishful thinking and ignore factual input. We should only be firm in holding to our programs when we are certain of the rightness of our path. Very often an authentic inner voice is trying desperately to get us to change course, and we stubbornly refuse because of our cherished beliefs. We need to pay heed to that voice, and always entertain new possibilities, both for our own and everyone else’s benefit.

         The subtlety of distinguishing our authentic inner voice from our ego’s posturing is one of the greatest challenges in spiritual life, so the assistance of a worthy guide is crucial.

         I have a number of friends and relatives who obstinately adhere to their favorite religion, confident they are saved and that heaven awaits them. For some, their lives are degenerating in a death spiral, but their chosen convictions allow them to pretend that everything is fine, that it would be wrong to doubt their beliefs even as they evaporate into thin air. They cheer terrible events if they appear to bolster their own sect, and imagine that their own personal failures are due to inadequate submission on their part, not because the belief system itself is flawed. Somehow they have learned to kill off the inner sensibility that as long as it lives can never be hoodwinked into believing freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength, and war is peace.

         As Arjuna has discovered, conflict presents us the opportunity to change and grow, if we don’t blind ourselves to unanticipated options. But his bravery is not typical, sadly. The norm is to try ever harder to shut out unpleasant truths. This is firmness gone totally wrong.

         A tragic and perfect example is a story we heard when my younger daughter was running competitively in high school. The American Marines have a slogan adopted by some macho types, “Pain is weakness leaving the body.” Actually, pain is an urgent message between the body and the brain that something is amiss. Anyway, one long distance runner suffered persistent heel pain, but kept pushing through it and running on and on. As the pain grew worse he “toughed it out” and forged ahead at full speed. The pain was being caused by a bone spur rubbing on his Achilles tendon, and gradually cutting its way through it. The tamasic runner finally got the message when the tendon was completely severed, ending his running career forever.

         We need to push ourselves to overcome our native laziness, but not wanting to rise out of our easy chair is not pain at all, whatever we might like to claim. Anyone too dogmatic to distinguish one from the other is plainly tamasic. But we all have tamasic elements in us, so this story should remind us that darkness tricks us exactly in what we take for granted. We have to encourage ourselves to remain open to countervailing opinions. Religions that insist their votaries not question their tenets are purveyors of mental and spiritual bondage.

         Clinging to slogans out of desperation is remarkably common, and should be recognized as real darkness; a kind of mental illness. If we don’t really know why we want something, when we are challenged we hang on to it harder than ever. When it comes to religious matters, we can even be prepared to kill to hold on to what we imagine are its requirements. Commandments to the contrary can be conveniently ignored by anyone steeped in tamas.

         All of us must have had arguments with people where they held fast to destructive or ridiculous positions, and no amount of persuasion would bring them around. Anyone who has tried to convince an alcoholic or other drug addict to enter treatment has met the tamasic will at its most intractable. It’s almost impossible to address it from outside. Therefore we are well advised to seek out tamasic willfulness in ourselves and banish it wherever it may be found, before it gets a firm grip. Don’t let the insidious spiritual ego prevent you from frank self-analysis on a regular basis, and always listen to criticism before discounting it as unjustified.


36-39) And now hear from Me of the three kinds of happiness, in which one by practice rejoices, and in which he reaches the end of pain;

that happiness which is like gall at first, ambrosial at the end, born of lucid self-understanding, is called sattvic;

that happiness arising out of contact of the senses with objects, at first like ambrosia, at the end like gall, is called rajasic;

that happiness which at first and in after-effects is self-confounding, arising from sleep, lassitude and listlessness, is called tamasic.


         And above all of these options: that happiness which is all-pervading and eternal is the mark of one who has transcended the influence of the three modalities. English does not distinguish relative from absolute happiness, as Sanskrit does. The happiness dealt with in these four verses is sukham, sweetness or pleasure, the opposite of duhkham, pain. Ananda is absolute happiness or joy, all-filling, with no contrary. Krishna has presented absolute happiness before; now he needs to address the relative version in the form of pleasure, in other words happiness tied to actual events or objects in life. This type of happiness ranges from spectacular to ghastly, so it bears careful examination. There is nothing wrong with having the best types of relative happiness in our life, as they conduce to the happiness of all creatures great and small. However, selfish or twisted forms of happiness tend to have negative consequences.

         Attaining happiness within the sattvic modality includes activities like meditation, yoga practice, various artistic endeavors, scientific study, strenuous physical challenges, and transformative service to others, doctoring and so forth, where a lot of effort comes before the joy of effective performance. Such items, galling at first but pouring out ambrosia afterwards, include all the myriad skills worth working for. However laudable and satisfying they may be, such activities aren’t spiritual per se. That depends on how they are integrated with your natural proclivities. Just doing spiritual things doesn’t necessarily make you spiritual. Unlike the unalloyed happiness of union with the Absolute, sattvic pursuits embody a subtle dualism. You want to become something you think you aren’t yet. That’s fine as far as it goes, but it’s good to recognize its limitations, because you are more than any of these things. Ideally, sattvic activities nudge your toward your center, which is the true source of abiding happiness.

          Nataraja Guru, in a slightly different context, expresses the crucial difference between the happiness of the gunas and the unalloyed wonder of the Absolute:


As soon as this primary “basic” fundamental conditioning natural to the intellect in relation with projective interests in life is admitted into our way of thinking, it has the disastrous effect of shutting out the unconditioned aspect of the Absolute. One already views it, as it were, through colored glasses of conditionings of three kinds to begin with. These three give birth to other secondary ones whose ramifications … fill the whole area of the field and stream of consciousness with multiplicity of interests, rather than with that unitive one which is the highest and supreme Value in life. (One Hundred Verses of Self-Instruction, 79)


         There is a very clever distinction Krishna makes here between the sattvic “gall at first, ambrosial at the end,” and the rajasic “at first like ambrosia, at the end like gall.” In a reciprocal universe this is just what we should expect, but it’s still a tricky business. Gregory Bateson and Mary Catherine Bateson, in their book Angels Fear, (Toronto: Bantam, 1988) cite a parallel insight:


Collingwood talks about the difference between art and entertainment: that the real thing leaves you richer at the end and feeling good but requires a certain discipline at the beginning to attend to it, whereas entertainment requires no discipline to enjoy it at the beginning and leaves you sort of dead at the end. Education has become increasingly a matter of trying to seduce children into paying attention by sugaring the pill at the beginning, keeping them entertained. (127)


The Batesons continue with another germane perception:


In art, as opposed to entertainment, it is always uphill in a certain sense, so the effort precedes the reward rather than the reward being spooned out. One of the things that is important in depression is not to get caught in the notion that entertainment will relieve it. It will, you know, briefly, but it will not banish it. As reassurance is the food of anxiety, so entertainment is the food of depression. (132)


          That the sattvic approach is qualitatively different from the realized state is especially significant here. It’s not that you shouldn’t exercise your intelligence, only that you exercise it to engage with the here and now, in the present context, rather than for future expectations. Sattvic aims include a goal and the path to that goal. Realization, however, is not the end product of study or striving, but is wholly independent of intentionality. Therefore a distinction has to be made between happiness occurring within the modalities and happiness free of their colorations. True happiness cannot be the result of any process; instead it is the nature of existence itself. It doesn’t erase temporal happiness; it adds an additional dimension.

         A lot of great people wrestle with the schism, knowing that they may be top notch at their chosen skill, but still feeling in their heart that they don’t quite know who they are. Being the best football player only lasts a few years at most; surgeons have to retire eventually when their eyes and coordination lose a step. Even the best suffer burning criticism at times, so to whatever degree you are dependent on outside opinion you will be disappointed. Even if you are still in your prime there comes the suspicion that what you are doing resembles more the clothes you wear than your naked being. That’s because it’s true.

         So, back to sattvic happiness. Even in physical matters, gall or discomfort can be a requisite of good health. Exercise is difficult and sometimes even painful, until muscles are built up and the benefits outweigh the inconveniences. Without at least some stress, the body will deteriorate. In chiropractic adjustments, there is often momentary pain as misaligned structures are forced back into their proper positions. The shock is almost immediately followed by a rush of energy and relief that would never have occurred absent the application of intense pressure.

         We generally emerge from childhood with any number of misaligned beliefs, similar to our misaligned skeleton. Both cause chronic pain and fail to hold as much weight as well-adjusted systems can. So we should go to a guru or therapist at least as often as the chiropractor.

         Realigning our ideas can cause periods of painful self-examination, but these are followed by the joy of healing. Sadly, many people only go to those so-called gurus who are so gentle and sweet that no real adjustment takes place. Their unspoken plea beneath the “Teach me,” is “Don’t hurt me.” If the medicine tastes bad they run, so the guru gives them only sugar syrup. Then spiritual transformation becomes a charade, a mockery of the real effort required. The pampered ones show off their pedigree in place of sinking into themselves, hang lots of pictures on the wall and feel satisfied—as long as nothing happens to disturb the idyll. But life has a puckish streak, and may turn them into an ass without their realizing it. It is well worthwhile to steel ourselves for a few shocks if we apply for psychic adjustments, keeping in mind that embracing the unexpected is much more effective than clinging to familiar territory.


         The lion’s share of humanity’s striving for happiness is rajasic, where the individual is attracted to something enjoyable but of a temporary, transient character. Repeating the interaction more and more frequently or with greater intensity is required to keep up the original level of enjoyment. The absurd slogan “he who dies with the most toys, wins” epitomizes this outlook.

         An important implication here is that the road to happiness cannot be charted out simply on the basis of what seems or feels good. The libertine adage “if it feels good, do it!” is not immediately applicable to spiritual life. It should be amended to the much less sexy “if it feels good, consider it.” Nothing should be adopted simply on the basis of pain or pleasure, it must be mulled over intelligently.

         Unselfishness, the essence of moral philosophy, means giving things away, both tangible and intangible, but it leads to harmony and security. Selfishness is pleasurable at first, in the sense of getting what you want, but in the long run it leads to social decay and insecurity. Therefore our self-interest in the long run is fostered by avoiding self-indulgence in the short run.

         Narayana Guru, in verses 23 and 24 of Atmopadesa Satakam, asserts that selfish actions are futile and misery-making, while generous and selfless acts benefit everyone, including you. This is paradoxical, but easily verifiable by testing it yourself. We need look no farther than the economic and moral collapse centered in American capitalism for stark proof. Societies that donate a significant part of their energies to the common good produce a sense of security that supports mental and physical well-being and a healthy environment, while the opposite effect comes from sequestering those energies in wealthy enclaves. Thus what looks on the surface like sacrifice is actually more beneficial to each individual than sweeping every crumb into private pockets. The latter course presages a return to monarchy and feudalism, which has already proved itself to be a superb engine for generating anguish and destitution.

         The paradox is this: if you want to benefit yourself, be generous and unselfish, within reason. Grasping and clinging to what you want causes your world to shrink and become mean and ugly. So to outsmart the paradox, open up your heart and let go of your fears.

         Some good neighbors of mine have rescued a young man from a terrible home situation and are trying to help him get his life in order. His mother is a dysfunctional drug addict, and he is totally uncared for. She gives him expensive toys and junk foods and lets him run wild. He can do what he wants, eat what he wants, and be left alone. A child’s dream of heaven! My friends force him to do his homework, learn to be polite, keep clean, and the rest of the civilized behaviors, using appeals to his intelligence rather than bribery. But he is only eleven. Like most children, he has a rajasic nature that puts instant gratification ahead of abstract future joys, and it will be a long time before he develops a more mature perspective. So he not only wants to go back to his mother, he is openly hostile to his adoptive caretakers.

         Everyone else can see that he is doomed to a miserable life if he gets his way. He has to learn that discipline, while unpleasant in some respects, will open up worlds for him that otherwise will be closed off. By reacting only to surface pleasures, his happiness will be short lived and lead him into tragedy. Yet goaded by those palpable temptations, he refuses to consider that his well-being depends on his ability to see beyond their lure. At the moment, it looks like rajas is going to win out.

         The experience of ambrosia first and gall later calls to mind alcohol and other drugs. When life is filled with negativity, a drug-induced vacation is a surcease of sorrow that looks like happiness. Unfortunately, the problems reappear undiminished or even aggravated when the rajasic one reawakens. And of course repeated doses of rajasic balm produce a slide into tamas, as the reliance on external buttressing deepens and addiction sets in.


         Tamasic happiness in modern terms is called depression. Depression happens when you have a destiny to fulfill and you aren’t moving toward it, for whatever reason. You’re depressed because what you’re doing or not doing isn’t right. Something needs work, and some sattvic interest has to be generated, both of which require serious effort. Taking a pill or a swill to mask the symptoms means you’ll now be able to put up with the problem instead of rectifying it. What a triumph for civilization! Where you should be encouraged to take action in an enlightened way, you’re put on the shelf, to bide your time until you die. Another life to be thrown away, wasted. Oddly enough, some people do come to enjoy their state of depression, in a perverse way, which makes it even more intractable.

         One thing for the spiritual aspirant to be especially on guard against is mistaking tamas for sattva. Many supposedly spiritual techniques suppress the psyche in the misguided belief that doing so brings on some advanced state. There can be a pleasurable fog associated with turning off the mind, but it may well be a fool’s paradise. There is a thin line we need to discern between spiritual pruning to promote growth and psychological repression.

         We are glorious, amazing beings, and we are squelched and repressed to the point where our glory is all under wraps. The subconscious clash between our rich potential and our impoverished palette is the cause of depression. Feeling unsatisfied should be a goad to break out and liberate ourselves, but instead it’s treated as an ego trip or a superficial chemical imbalance. The chemicals are an effect of depression, not the cause, by the way. Treating the effects for a period of time may be quite helpful, but it’s too bad if it is considered the whole enchilada. The ogres of social stagnation don’t want a world full of self-realized humans. Quite the contrary. They’re after consumers of expensive pleasures that have to be repurchased regularly.

         One of the most unhealthy of modern beliefs is the conviction that there’s nothing you can do about depression (or anything else for that matter). Even if such a belief were true there would be no excuse for it. You’re told it’s genetic. You’re stuck with it. Au contraire! Everything is subject to change. You are divine. Be stuck with that instead, if you want to be stuck.


         Drug use, the craving for instant happiness, should not be lumped under just one modality. It ranges from sattvic (psychedelics used for spiritual enlightenment) through rajasic (cocaine, speed and social drugs like alcohol), to tamasic (narcotics and barbiturates, plus alcohol when it is used for self-annihilation). Tobacco epitomizes tamasic drugs. Smelly and obnoxious to others, vile tasting from start to finish, providing a wholly false, chemically induced sense of fleeting well-being buoyed by a defensive wall of “coolness,” it conduces to no higher value expressions at all. Well, maybe watching patterns of smoke rising is moderately enchanting…. Where it was once upon a time used solely in social rites of communion by Native Americans, that honorable raison d’être has long ago become vestigial, with furtive smokers huddled together on doorsteps or in bars. While tobacco has only a minimal impact on consciousness, it is supremely addictive. The rest of the tamasic drugs serve to bring pleasure by diminishing or suppressing self-awareness and mental functioning in general. Great for coming to accept that you will never actualize even a small amount of your potential, and dismissing all doubts from your mind.


40)         There is no entity either on earth or in heaven, among the Vedic divinities, that could be free from these three modalities born from nature.


         Krishna reminds us that transcending something doesn’t mean that it goes away. Trying to suppress things and make them disappear is a dangerous game with many negative consequences. Imagining we are immune to being affected by nature is yet another ploy of the spiritual ego. Humility is called for here. We have to be free in our mind even as the modalities continue to operate everywhere, at all times. It’s a matter of where we place our attention. Do we focus on the ups and downs of everyday life, or do we also include the vertical aspect by remembering the neutral Absolute in the midst of it all? The Gita has always lumped gods and heavens into the horizontal parameter, the “ups and downs of everyday life.”

         Moreover, Krishna reminds us that we are subject to all three gunas. We may piously imagine we are sattvic and above rajas and tamas, but in fact the three are inseparable. More than that, they are crucially important. The smugness that often accompanies sattva is already either rajasic or tamasic. The holier-than-thou attitude is a blatant contradiction, in that no one who believes it could be holy. The dreaded spiritual ego is an embarrassment, and highly off-putting. You can do better!


41)         Of brahmins, ksatriyas, vaisyas and sudras, O Arjuna, vocations are separately distributed in conformity with the modalities arising from their own nature.


         The distinctions between the four main castes were described in IV, 13, in case you are not familiar with them. If we conceive of a continuum with freedom at one end and necessity at the other, the four castes represent stages along it, with brahmins the most free and sudras the least. Sannyasins, the subject of this final chapter, have transcended the continuum entirely and thus are not part of any caste. Since the ideal of perfect renunciation is so rarely attained, Krishna presents the whole range of possibilities that humans are subject to.

         The discussion summarizing those societal categories in the next few verses forms one of the most controversial sections of the Gita, used from time immemorial to justify inequality based on rigid caste discrimination. This is definitely contrary to the Gita’s intent. Like many of the negative elements derived from scripture, caste rigidity is a self-serving interpretation made after the fact by those who benefit most. Here we want to return to the heart of the matter and restore justice to the field.

         Right off the bat we can note that the varnas, or color grades—castes in the vernacular—all appear together. There is nothing in the Gita to reserve wisdom for some and not others, as has been held by certain revisionists. And, as noted earlier, although the proportions vary, each of us has some of each and every grade in our makeup.

         The castes are here rated in a cursory scale from more sattvic through more rajasic to more tamasic, in an attempt to roughly equate varnas and gunas, castes and nature modalities. It’s four against three, so the fit can only be approximate. Very roughly speaking then, sudras are tamasic, vaisyas are rajasic/tamasic, kshatriyas are rajasic/sattvic, and brahmins are sattvic.

         The varnas are like the gunas in that no one is exclusively sattvic, rajasic or tamasic. The gunas operate in rotation and interpenetrate at all times, and they should be sloughed off as a whole, not one by one. The same is true of the varnas.

         We should recall that Krishna has advised Arjuna as early as II, 45 to stand beyond the gunas entirely. He is calling us now to be a sannyasin or tyagi, as free of the imprint of the modalities as possible. It goes without saying that we should be free of caste oppression just as we are free from the impingement of the nature modalities. A sannyasin transcends all four castes, as well as all three gunas.

         No matter how transcendent we may be, a healthy behavior pattern includes all four varnas in it. To lead a balanced life, we should set aside time every day for some contemplation and study, some active social interaction, some organizational planning and execution, and some hard work. As we know, the Gita does not advocate abandoning participation in life, but rather an exalted immersion in it.

         Spiritual communities where activity is minimized by hiring outside laborers tend to become lost in abstractions, with a tendency toward laziness and degeneration. Those that overemphasize labor run the risk of intellectual dullness, as there is little time left for contemplative pursuits. As always, balance is the goal. The most successful communities integrate all four varnas, whether they call them that or not.


         Humans, like many animals, feel compelled to arrange themselves in hierarchies, and India’s rigid caste system demonstrates how disastrous that can be. The problem is not purely Indian: there are plenty of other social systems around the world that more or less codify injustice. The main one historically is based on wealth, with the richest putting their resources into maintaining their elite status by various means, including convincing the lower classes that they are poor by God’s will, so they should just accept it. Such ploys are backed by a monopoly of armaments, control of taxation, and so on. Staunchly opposed to arbitrarily enforced hierarchies is the hypothesis of democracy, which never yet been implemented on a large scale, but is occasionally envisioned as a goal. Yoga is similar to democracy in upholding liberty and justice for all. Democracy and yoga are ways to channel the subliminal will of the Absolute into everyday affairs. Where hierarchies drive people apart, those higher callings strive to instigate some form of unity, a coming together of the peoples.

         At the most absurd extreme of hierarchies, there is even a kind of stratification on the basis of skin color, where the darker you are the lower on the pecking order. This is a fine example of a belief that bears no relationship with reality (see v. 31). Skin tone is scientifically and ethically utterly unrelated to other qualities, and anyone who thinks it is needs to dig a bit deeper than their prejudices. The Gita turns this prejudice upside down, with its very dark guru, Krishna, and his silvery disciple Arjuna. Be that as it may, the mindset of a yogi treats all people as one in essence, regardless of their social status or physical attributes.

         The most important part of this verse is that the classification of people by caste arises from their own nature, not from any accident of birth. Anything else is a recipe for unhappiness. For example, I have a good friend who is a business manager, which is a combination of vaishya and a strong dash of kshatriya. He loves his work and is very good at it. For my own part, I was never comfortable with managing other people, and I would have been miserable in his job. My own work as a firefighter was menial service combined with brief bursts of skill and prowess, or sudra with a sprinkling of kshatriya. I loved either not having to think about my job at all, leaving my mind free to wander, or once in awhile having my abilities tested to the utmost. This would have driven my business friend bonkers, but suited me to a T.

         What went wrong with the caste system in India is not that the four categories of vocations exist, but that they became hereditary, based not on talent and desire but the fixed fact of parental fortunes. I was born into a family of skilled businessmen, so in that type of rigid system I would have been forced to perform the very kind of job I loathed. Because of my negative feelings, my performance would likely have been very poor. Happily I was reasonably free to find something more to my taste, especially since it involved moving down in status. It’s always easier to go down than up in a hierarchy.

         True freedom of choice allows opportunities for people to discover their own inclinations and act in accordance with them, while lack of choice is a recipe for failure. What’s worse, fixed roles tend to be fixed by those who benefit most from the status quo, to preserve their privileges, though in the long run even their position is undermined when natural cycles reassert themselves. Over time, wealth and privilege have a corrosive effect on those who attain them through inheritance instead of merit. Whenever and however the stasis breaks apart once again, it is poetically like Krishna reincarnating to restore the dharma, as he affirmed in IV, 7 & 8.

         Nitya Chaitanya Yati relates an important meeting about caste between Mahatma Gandhi and Narayana Guru, in his autobiography Love and Blessings:


Gandhi’s strict adherence to his own ideas of truth sometimes appeared to me as condoning the perpetuation of traditionally followed customs which were obviously covers for the powerful to exploit the underprivileged…. When Gandhi had visited Narayana Guru in Varkala long before, he had insisted on the natural differences between people and argued that caste was as much real as a tree having big and small or tender and withered leaves. Narayana Guru had replied that all leaves of the mango tree taste the same when chewed. The Mahatma had said that caste was good for the transmission of a craft or a trade from father to son, thus preserving its tradition. Narayana Guru exposed the shallowness of his argument by pointing out the decadence of every craft in India, from masons and carpenters to jewelers and sculptors, because there was no competition in any field. Nor was there any organized effort to transmit the modern techniques of silk weaving, metallurgy, architecture and the like to aspiring and efficient novices. These progressive stands of Narayana Guru created a tug-of-war in my mind with the Mahatma’s conservative approach. (90)


Incidentally, this meeting is thought to have been instrumental in transforming Gandhi’s attitude toward India’s lowest classes.

         This verse is one of the few places where I’ve slightly changed Nataraja Guru’s translation, from ‘separately assigned’ to ‘separately distributed’ for pravibhaktani. The latter is the first definition in the MW, and seems more in keeping with the Gita’s vision of svadharma, activity in resonance with one’s own nature. If vocations or “callings” are assigned, who does the assigning? And then do you have to follow your assignment as a kind of externally enforced duty? There is a taint of the oppressive side of caste in the former translation I wanted to definitely eliminate.

         Speaking of Nataraja Guru, he clarifies any confusion on the issue of caste in the introduction to his Gita commentary:


[In Chapter XVIII] there is a general conclusion belonging to the whole work, dealing with applied aspects and reaching the discussion of actual patterns of behaviour. Even here no social obligation is involved, but only an intelligent and free recognition by oneself of what particular role in life one’s own personality fits one to play on a given or particular occasion….

  Each of these static forms of rigid obligatory religious tradition is here taken up by Vyasa and boldly revalued. Neither heredity nor the dead weight of obligation statically and narrowly conceived are allowed to vitiate the question of the free choice of models of active life from the available range open to every man.

  When the concluding position has been brought to this important and still philosophical question of matching inner and outer factors in life, there is still left the particular case of Arjuna on the battlefield to which such a theory is to be applied. (43-4)


Which of course is to be applied to our own particular case on our own battlefield, which we alone will be optimally able to address.


42)         Calmness, self-restraint, austerity, purity, forgiveness, and straightforwardness, pure wisdom, applied wisdom, belief: these are the items of activity of the brahmin, born of his own nature.


         Because they form a continuum, the four varnas will be treated together under verse 44 below. Nataraja Guru does have an import caveat about brahmins, however, in his comments on the present verse:


The brahmin of this verse, unlike the brahmin of Manu, is one who is sublimated or glorified in the light of contemplation, with no vestiges of obligation clinging to the high pattern of his spiritual life. While it would be good for those who vociferously claim brahminism for themselves through magnified religious egoism to aspire for these truly spiritual qualities for purposes of healthy emulation, to claim such as a prerogative belonging to a closed and static group in society can only be considered an anachronistic conceit. The true brahmin of the Gita approximates to a type of contemplative rather than a ritualist, and resembles in this way both the tyagi (relinquisher) and the samnyasin (renouncer). (682)


43)         Prowess, brightness, firmness, skill, and also never-absconding, generosity, and dignity of mien, refer to the pattern of activity of the ksatriya, born of his own nature.


44)         Plowing, tending cattle, and trade are the items of vocation of the vaisya, born of his own nature; work of the nature of menial service is likewise born of the sudra’s own nature.


         In an enlightened interpretation, the varnas are not vocations as much as states of mind. Thus almost any vocation can contain the four “castes” in it, as we will see. Moreover, those of us who are less than monochromatic will pass through all four states at various times.

         Sudras are the people who prefer to not have to think for themselves. They are happiest being told what to do and carrying it out, even if they grumble while they are at it. Having to make their own decisions causes them a lot of anxiety and confusion. They can’t stop worrying about whether they’ve made the right choice or not, so they’d prefer to avoid the whole issue. Since most of us were raised as children to be obedient and were quickly punished for the insolence of wanting our own way, sudra nature is deeply engraved in our psyches.

         Vaisyas appreciate a little more freedom to think for themselves, but prefer to keep within the well-defined limits of their social milieu. Creative thinking makes them as uncomfortable as independence does the sudra type, and they often have obstinately fixed opinions about right and wrong behavior. Contractual relationships are the norm, where you expect something back for whatever you give. Much of schoolwork inculcates this mentality in us, because it’s all done for a well-defined reason, usually chosen bureaucratically nowadays. The crafters of educational systems insist on a predictable outcome for every input, measurable in concrete terms.

         Kshatriyas are those who have become comfortable enough in their conscious development to where independent and even creative thinking is possible. Self-consciousness is much less apparent. This is the avowed goal of education, but is often sabotaged by its overly rigid boundaries.

         Brahmins, then, are those who are the most creative and least in need of guidelines to live by, usually free of self-conscious inhibitions. They have somehow managed to break out of at least some of the habitual patterning the human brain is prone to. They do things for the joy of it, rather than following a program to achieve a particular benefit. It’s true—real brahmins are not too common!

         I have pointed out earlier that the ancients supposed these types were god-given traits, something humans are born with, but we now believe that nurture has at least as determinative a role as nature in these matters. The Gita even sounds like it states this literally here, as if it is claiming the varnas are born of a person’s own nature, and thus immutable. What is meant though, is that each varna has in its nature the characteristics listed. It is the characteristics that are born, not the person. People must discern their own predilections, and then find a way to bring them to life.

         I like to think of the castes as also representing aspects of the psyche present in everyone. Each person has (in addition to a profoundly renounced aspect of a sannyasin), a contemplative side (brahmana), a creative side (kshatriya), a planning side (vaishya) and the part that carries out the plans (sudra). Ideally, all these work together in harmony. If one aspect decides it is superior, or for that matter inferior, all the other aspects are pulled out of joint and fall short of their optimal functioning.

         The theory of the varnas strikes me as sketching out a paradigm we all face regularly in life. We begin many enterprises with a perfectly straightforward vision, but as we try to implement it we encounter increasing levels of obstacles, which as we deal with them bring up new problems that must be met, until we are completely mired down in actualities, and the original vision is nowhere to be found. Often the outcome is the opposite we began with. For example:

         The brahmin element for many of us includes a vision of universal peace and harmony. The kshatriya in us conceives of rules and programs designed to implement our utopian vision. The methods selected inevitably have unforeseen consequences, which the vaishya in us tries to work around and otherwise cope with. Eventually our sudra nature picks the most promising aspect and puts all its energies into trying to bring it to fruition, but if enough obstacles exist it may give up the struggle and submit to the practical necessities of harsh reality, where the divergent motivations of people come into conflict. It is all too common for our initially glorious vision to stir up enmity in those who disagree with our ideals, thus having to be compromised until almost nothing worthwhile remains. Our harmonious intent has become splintered into chaos.

         Is the sannyasin the one who anticipates this process and so holds back from initiating any actions? That is an additional “caste” to the psyche that is sometimes taken as an option. The Gita affirms that not initiating action is impossible, so it modifies sannyasa with the ideal of tyaga, where you act with an ineffable vision in your heart, but don’t allow yourself to be bogged down by adhering to rigid guidelines or expecting specific outcomes. You do still hold to the abstract vision in principle, knowing full well that the consequences will not exactly match it, but at least acting under the inspiration of a global vision is better than acting out of selfish pragmatism, in that you retain the potential of achieving something meaningful.

         We can see how these varnas play out in any vocation we choose to examine. Let’s start with the teaching profession. There are those who are content to be told exactly what to say to the students, and then stand up and say it. Others similarly “lay down the law” but can craft it to suit the receptivity of the kids in the class. Good teachers know what’s called for, but can make it interesting by connecting the material more directly with their students’ minds. They know that what matters is the learning experience, even more than the transmission of specific facts. The truly great teachers have a transformative impact on the whole life of their students, communicating not only the subject but the love of learning and questing for excellence.

         Likewise, from the standpoint of the students, there are those who docilely accept what they are told, memorize it more or less, and once in awhile regurgitate some of it on demand. Their main motivation is to avoid punishment and move ahead to the next stage of the farce; otherwise they don’t care. Next up the scale are those who work hard to grasp what the teacher presents so they can do well on tests and get ahead in their careers. A lot of school instruction is geared to this level, with plenty of handouts and note-taking and repetition drills. Humans are trained to supply the “right” answer, which is the one currently in demand. Kshatriyas absorb their classes sufficiently to begin to be knowledgeable about the subject, including creative extrapolations. In other words, they begin to think for themselves, outside the box, but usually still standing on the box. The brahmin level kicks in when a person is fully fluent in their field, both knowledgeable and creative in utilizing the store of information they possess.

         In terms of spiritual studies, sudras are those who accept the literal surface teachings of their particular religion, and that’s as far as they want to go. Like sudra students, the inspiration is to avoid punishment, in this case a future hell or the wrath of God. Clinging to untenable beliefs, they pugnaciously defend their own while despising everyone else’s. Vaisyas follow the dictates of their religion closely, but do apply it to their lives in practically useful ways. Kshatriyas are those who begin to incorporate the meaning of their favorite scripture into their lives, and can even forget the context for a spell. They mark the stage where religion begins to be transformed into spirituality. Lastly, brahmins have become identified with the teaching to such a degree that they live their lives as if it is their inner motivation, which it is.

         In sports and the arts there are those who play by the rules and have little motivation. Mainly these sudras are out on the field or the stage because someone else has convinced them it’s a good idea. Vaisyas don’t mind performing too much, but don’t care to excel, because their hearts aren’t in it. They play by the rules, but don’t stray beyond the tried and true. Kshatriyas are the sports heroes and entertainment stars who excel in their chosen field. They love what they do and know how to be creative within the given parameters. By selecting Arjuna as its hero, the Gita emphasizes that this level is ideal for everyday human activity. Kshatriyas exemplify expertise in life and the joy of putting on an inspiring performance where knowledge and action are perfectly blended. Above this level are the rare brahmins of sport and stage, those amazingly talented ones who seem almost beyond human capabilities in what they can accomplish. Mostly they are seen as being “gifted,” and having more than an ability that can be developed simply by dedication and hard work. Barring good luck or divine intervention, the rest of us will never attain their stature. Our best efforts will make us kshatriyas, and that’s a very good thing.

         These few examples should make it easy to apply the principles of “caste” to whatever endeavor you find yourself in. Being wholly open-ended, the Gita merely shows the possibilities; it is up to us to avail ourselves of the hints or not. Perhaps it should gall us a little if we see that we are acting like a resigned sudra at work, when it would be so easy to do better. All it takes is a change of heart, or attitude. It’s too bad if a yoga student merely pays lip service to the Gita’s revision of the caste system without appreciating its radical and useful implications.

         From Krishna’s perspective the hardened attitude of keeping everyone in their allotted place is totally wrong-headed. While respecting a person’s right to live in their chosen comfort zone, we can simultaneously foster their potential to rise out of tamas toward more sattvic attitudes, and out of the subjugated mentality toward increased comfort with independence and creativity. It benefits everyone when people become more alive to their world, more sensitive and caring. Those who imagine they benefit from holding others down have very poor imaginations!

         While most people certainly have a predominant “caste” they feel comfortable within, we exemplify qualities of all of them at one time or another. Therefore, these outlines can be very useful for self-examination, and are basically wasted if they are thought to be directed only at other people.


45)         Devoted each to his own occupation, man reaches perfection (in practical yoga); how, devoted to his own occupation he attains such perfection—that do hear.


         Nataraja Guru parenthetically adds “in practical yoga” because few would imagine that simply doing your job will lead to perfection all by itself. It might be a kind of perfection, but there is much more to life than one’s occupation.

         Pride in one’s fortuitous place in society is the flip side of guilt about the same. Through a dialectical synthesis (yoga) these are cancelled out in the higher understanding of accepting and being where you are, taking no credit and having no shame about it either. Definitely this is the attitude where one is most efficient to help everyone around them, which brings us to the next, more subtle dialectic, namely unitive action.

         There is perfection at every stage of life. Knowing this is very helpful to free us from our manifold feelings of inadequacy and inferiority, and to learn to embrace all beings as intrinsically divine. Since everything has a flip side, this attitude can also breed complacency and acceptance of injustice. To guard against this it’s good to make plans, hope for the future, solve problems, work for a better world, and all that. The unitive way to do this is to always appreciate the perfection of the situation and the people in it, even while trying to “improve” things and do your best. Improving on perfection is a bit of a paradox, but a relatively easy one to embrace. Improvement is an especially perfect thing to be occupied with.

         Being devoted to your occupation, you are the one most likely to grasp its nuances and intricacies, and to know how to improve and streamline the systems involved. It is an ancient curse continuing into the present that politicians, dilettantish managers and busybodies want to butt in and direct the experts, instead of humbly asking for their input. Krishna clearly supports the on-site workers here.

         Through the ages this verse has been interpreted to reinforce stasis in the lives of people, but that is a projection based on an implicit master-slave dichotomy. The Gita always supports dynamism by way of creative thought and action. Actually, this and the following verse home in on one of the Gita’s key teachings: that the divine is not found in some recondite corner of the universe, but everywhere. Right here within us, in fact. Therefore we work to attain the Absolute not by seeking any occult accomplishment but through dealing with everyday issues that land right in our lap. The more we come alive to the world around us, the more we can participate in the total situation with expertise, and the more authentically enjoyable it becomes.

         A friend of mine, a typical office worker, has recently learned to put this teaching into practice. Where previously she jealously guarded her turf on programs she had developed over the years, she has stepped back to take a good hard but neutral look at what she was guarding. As soon as she did this she realized that her trade secrets weren’t nearly as important to keep to herself as she had thought. It suddenly became easy to open up and share her expertise with others, who responded positively in kind. The step in the right direction was thus a blessing to herself even more than her coworkers, because she could drop some of her defenses. Defending turf takes a lot of energy, which has much better outlets awaiting its deployment. Yoga here means not defending and at the same time not letting others push you around; in other words holding firm if they try to take over the turf you have stopped defending. (Sounds just like the battle of Kurukshetra, doesn’t it?) She has had to learn a delicate balancing act between these twin forces. Such refined spiritual practice is hard to follow in a meditation retreat—it requires engagement with other people on a transactional basis. So even more important for my friend was the reinforcement of the wisdom of working on yourself where you are. Spiritual growth isn’t something that takes place sequestered in the meditation closet, it happens right where you live and work. When you see your job as an opportunity to put spiritual precepts into practice, your occupation can be transformed from an arena of dread into an exciting theater for performance art. On good days it might even feel divine.


         One of the Gita’s most surprising ideas is that we contribute the most to the whole as well as to our own happiness by pursuing an independent course of maximum freedom from conditions and unnecessary obligations. The conventional wisdom is that by turning away from society and into our personal depths we remove ourselves from the fray and become misfits, but it seems that we actually contribute more by doing so than if we become patriotic cheerleaders massed on the sidelines of the Big Game.

         James Surowiecki, in The Wisdom of Crowds, amply demonstrates the ability of a diverse group to arrive at an optimal decision collectively, better than any one individual expert, but only when its members are not overly influenced by the others. Minimally influenced perspectives from the widest possible range of people are the key factors of the collective decision. Much less effective are groups where the herd instinct prevails, in which the members are subject to a powerful leader, and also groups comprised of nothing but “experts,” who tend to clump together around a particular preselected viewpoint. The scientific evidence Surowiecki presents against experts validates the Isha Upanishad’s claim that those who worship knowledge live in the greatest darkness, even greater than those who are ignorant. The democratic decision-making championed in The Wisdom of Crowds supports the Bhagavad Gita’s emphasis on becoming independent in order to be optimally beneficial to both yourself and others:


Diversity and independence are important because the best collective decisions are the product of disagreement and contest, not consensus and compromise. An intelligent group, especially when confronted with cognition problems, does not ask its members to modify their positions in order to let the group reach a decision everyone can be happy with. Instead, it figures out how to use mechanisms—like market prices, or intelligent voting systems—to aggregate and produce collective judgments that represent not what any one person in the group thinks but rather, in some sense, what they all think. Paradoxically, the best way for a group to be smart is for each person in it to think and act as independently as possible. (xix-xx) (emphasis mine)


To a yogi this isn’t as paradoxical as it might appear to someone conditioned to conformity. The more independent of conditioning we are, the more we are alive to our inner vision or our ability to comprehend. And when we try to please others through imitation, we are loading up on a form of conditioning, constraining ourselves to be obedient rather than creative.


46)         He from whom all existences come forth, and by whom all this is pervaded—by offering worship to Him with his own occupation, man wins perfection.


         Here we arrive at the bottom line: whatever you do, if it is done well it is an expression of the divine in life. If there is any point at all to existence it is to delight in the many and various forms and how they interrelate and evolve. And there is no distant god looking on with approval or disapproval. Our actual eyes are the very eyes of the eternal witness to the stupendous panoply of creation.

         This means we don’t have to be or do something else to win perfection. It happens right in the core of what we are and how we express our abilities. But “offering worship” means we should also strive for excellence. This should not be taken as a way of keeping people in their place: “Just be content to be at the bottom (or in the middle) of the heap, where you belong.” Sadly, that message has been grafted on to the Gita’s real intent of optimum freedom for all. Growth and change aren’t only abstract spiritual concepts, they are factors that make life worth living and enjoyable. Variety is definitely one of life’s tastiest spices.

         How many people toil miserably day in and day out, held in place in part by imagining they will soon be somewhere else, or that a heavenly afterlife awaits them? We miss everything by deferring our needs and hopes until “later”, which always comes right after tomorrow. What if what we’ve heard is wrong, and this is it? We will have missed our one opportunity to live life to the fullest.


         The word ‘occupation’ is invariably taken to refer to employment, but that’s yet another of the perversions of modern life. Your occupation is what occupies you. Most of us don’t express our finest abilities in our paid employment. This should definitely not be taken as a directive to get back to work and quit having fun—quite the reverse. We express a sliver of the grand potential of the whole through what we are occupied doing. The evolution and unfoldment of the sum total of all activities could be called the body of God. The more beautiful what you do is, the more beautiful God becomes. And the uglier what you do is, the uglier God becomes. That makes your life and its activities vitally important.

         The word in question is merely karma, action, and it’s only because of the context that the idea of vocation is brought in. Thompson even has it as “caste duty,” an egregious translation for sure. Happily not everyone misses the point that merely living our life well is the perfect worship of the Absolute. No arcane practices are necessary. The world is our church and the words we speak are our sermons. No superstitious attitude is required.

         The perfection spoken of here is not some mysterious state that comes as a reward for good behavior. It is the eternal joy of unitive living. To “win perfection” is thus slightly misleading. The sense of the word vindati includes attaining, reaching or finding. MW mentions “to know, understand, perceive, learn, have a correct notion of,” and so on. The best translation might therefore be “man finds perfection” or “man achieves perfection” rather than “wins perfection.”

         Nataraja Guru has some great things to say about this verse, which summarize an essential feature of yoga:


This verse enunciates a very important principle which we have noticed running throughout the Gita teaching. It is that of establishing proper bipolarity by the individual to whatever high ideal he is capable of postulating on the side of the transcendent.

  The counterparts here are (1) the actual actor who is plying his own trade here below immanently present and (2) the above mentioned transcendent principle described here as the source of all activity resulting in all beings, and who pervades everything hereunder. These qualifications are expressly made very plain, as if in a popular theological style, because if we take the instance of a sudra he will not be able to think of the Absolute with all the attributes by which, according to more philosophical writing, the Absolute could be presented.

  It is not necessary either, for the bipolar condition to be fulfilled correctly, in the context of contemplation, that the notion of the Absolute should be of a philosophically high order. As long as the counterparts are within the range of human nature or intelligence, they satisfy the required condition and would tend towards perfection when unitively brought together through worship.

  As an ordinary Hindu worshipper would offer a flower to his favorite idol, the man who is practicing a certain vocation is here recommended to take his vocation as an offering to the transcendental principle, which would represent the Absolute, at least according to himself. The technique of yoga is based on this kind of bipolarity and unitive merging of counterparts in a central value as we have had occasion to point out in connection with various other verses. (685)


47)         Better is one’s own calling, though inferior, than the duty of another well performed. One doing the duty determined by his own nature incurs no sin.


         The first half of this verse is identical to III, 35. Here at the conclusion of the work, Vyasa is reviewing the most important aspects of the teaching, to stress their value. This verse provides a smooth transition from the previous section to the upcoming one.

         Because of perversions of the Gita’s doctrine over time, the emphasis here is sometimes taken to be about adhering to inferior callings, with an eye to making the oppressed classes stay in their places. The real message is to be true to ourself, no matter what forces try to hold us back. There should be no doubt by now that every level of social organization functions better when comprised of independent individuals free to decide their own destiny. It’s the democratic, civilized option, and very dynamic.

         No fixed system can ever decide flawlessly what each person should do with their life. That is up to individuals to decide for themselves, within and sometimes without whatever framework happens to exist at the moment. Finding and expressing the talents most suitable to you is one of the great challenges of life, one that requires years of pondering and experimentation, not to mention a lot of playing around. It’s a battle we all must fight, even those born into privilege, if we want to know true happiness. The main role of education, by the way, is supposedly to help us discover who we are and what to do about it, preferably early on and not toward the tail end of our life. If someone else assigns you your role, oppression is virtually assured. They won’t know who you are, only who they think you are or want you to be. Each individual must be sovereign, and rule themselves wisely and well. The Gita here expresses this truth in the broadest possible terms.

         Shakespeare famously puts the same idea in Hamlet: “This above all: to thine own self be true, /And it must follow, as the night the day, / Thou canst not then be false to any man.” Although falsehood and sin are basically the same thing, I believe we can exempt the Bard from accusations of paraphrasing the Gita. He does write well, though!

         One recurrent tragedy of the human condition is to be mismatched in our role. We have spent our early years trying to adapt ourselves to what appears to be a fixed system, totally foreign to us. Its apparent organizational stability is in reality an illusion generated by passing events, but it’s an illusion we must face up to. The Gita is intended to help us restore harmony between who we are and what we do, not by fitting into the world but by rediscovering our core nature and then fitting the world into us.

         Many scientists and philosophers are beginning to view our planet as a single very complex organism, with each individual having a part in it analogous to a cell in a human body. Henri Bergson made a lot of this in The Two Sources of Morality and Religion.

         Teilhard de Chardin brought this ancient concept up to date in his book The Phenomenon of Man. A paleontologist, he noted that in the extended history of Earth, particles first gathered together to make atoms, then atoms gathered together to make molecules, molecules gathered together to make cells, and eventually cells gathered together to make ever more highly evolved bodies. Each stage produced a quantum leap in complexity and capability. He wondered if those bodies, or at least the minds in them, might not likewise gather together to make a super organism, which due to his Catholic background he thought of in terms of Christ. He wound up calling it the noosphere. Vedantins call this same concept the Self, atman. Jung called it the collective unconscious. More recently the name Gaia has been proposed to embrace the entirety of Earth’s life and consciousness.

         The biosphere of our planet is increasingly being conceived of in holistic terms, as a single immortal living being undergoing transformations via the evolution of its many mortal creatures. We can think of it as being like a forest, where individual trees of many species are specifically located in certain places with certain unique qualities, and are continually being born and dying, but the forest as a whole continues as a kind of transcendent, evolving entity. The whole is greater than and always outlasts its parts, and yet it can only exist because of them, in a sense. Within all the tumult of the parts is a steady macro-life that is something much more than the sum of its separate elements. Undoubtedly there is a gradual evolutionary process going on within the whole too, which makes it a contributing part of an even greater whole.

         In this outlook, each human can be thought of as a cell in the body of the incomprehensible spirit of whatever greater entity we inhabit. While there is no conscious connection between humans and our cells, there is nonetheless a profound interconnectedness totally essential to the life of both. Without well-functioning cells coordinated in some vastly mysterious way, complex life forms could not exist. And somehow participating in the greater being gives meaning and purpose to the lives of the cells comprising it, to say nothing of the nourishment they receive, seemingly without effort.

         What if some kidney cells were convinced they would be better off as bone marrow or brain cells instead, because that was a higher calling? They might look in the DNA blueprints for instructions of how to do it, and put themselves on a strict program designed to change their nature. It would be either a futile exercise if it was impossible, or a dangerous one if it wasn’t. The body needs those kidney cells to function immaculately as kidney cells to keep that critical organ in top condition. The Gita’s advice here reflects just such a reality. Spiritual life is very much vitiated by the nearly ubiquitous belief that we are meant to be something other than what we already are. The health of everything is optimized by us expressing our substantial talents in genuinely being ourselves.

         Rulers perennially claim divine insight into what this greater being is, and so arrogate to themselves the right to assign occupations to people. The paymaster calls the tune. Even in the Gita’s day, rishis were wise to this scam. All humans are equally ignorant of the whole of which we are a part. There is no external blueprint—we must dig deep into our own core to learn what type of “cell” we are. When blueprints are applied, they almost always turn out to be failures, because the vision is inescapably limited. History is filled with terrible disasters when leaders sought to perform surgery on the body politic in order to “improve” it. That’s Nature’s role. What may look unhealthy to a power mad despot may be a very vital organ to the body politic. Indeed, in the cosmic view we are all vital organs, or at least vital cells. The best plan, then, is to maximize individual freedom to choose according to everyone’s intelligent predilections, which allows them to participate in the whole most efficaciously. There is much more involved than immediate appeal, of course, and Krishna’s lengthy term of instruction is a prime example of how much consideration goes into wise decision-making.

         The optimistic founders of modern democracies saw in individual freedom of choice a way to channel divine intent, not unlike reading tea leaves, but employing sentience rather than happenstance. We have learned in the interim that propaganda can pervert the consensus, incurring the “sin” of convincing people to act against their own best interests. It takes courageous intelligence to resist propaganda and not be swayed by popular manias.

         Obviously one cell can’t do very much on its own, so it doesn’t become part of any greater purpose until it joins with its fellows. There is a need all around us for concerted action, which can take various forms. While sheer numbers of units endlessly repeated has some value, producing crystal structures for instance, within every living group of cells are divisions of labor and gradations of ability.

         In his brilliant novel Cat’s Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut invented a religion that includes the karass, a group of people who, unbeknownst to themselves, are collectively doing God’s will in carrying out a specific task. He notes that humans usually identify with a false karass, such as their own nation, race, political alliance, college, state, club or whatever. The true karass is invisible and inscrutable and wholly guided by God, so we don’t have to forge alliances on our own. They happen naturally and achieve goals beyond the imagination of the participants. This must be similar to how the cells in our own body might feel. Vonnegut was an avowed atheist, but he is brave enough to use the term ‘God’ to refer to the incomprehensible organizing factor, which could equally well be termed ‘nature’.

         Powerful humans have routinely wrested control of evolution out of Nature’s hands, and perverted the symmetry of her expression in the name of some form of putative freedom, which like as not is simply a masquerading form of oppression. But we are called by the Gita’s haunting message to give our allegiance only to the natural spirit within creation, not to the endless series of artificial political structures contrived by those fortunate (or cursed) enough to be holding the reins of temporal power. The Gita counsels us to look into our souls and discover our true nature, whether we’re brain cell or kidney cell or bone marrow. It doesn’t matter what you call that greater being, so long as it is what you are an integral part of, and you are acting in harmony with it. Doing that well is the greatest contribution to the whole you can possibly make, and attempting to abdicate your part and follow someone else’s dictates weakens the entire edifice of evolved existence. In reality no one can substitute for you: there is no one like you anywhere. And we should never be hoodwinked into believing that allegiance to some power-mad leader is the same as allegiance to our dharma, as many of those leaders would love to have us believe.

         The cell in the body analogy can teach us about prayer as well, which isn’t part of the Gita’s teaching but is an important question for many people. What if one of your cells wanted to petition you about some issue it had about its condition? How would it go about it? No matter how saintly you may be, you and the cell speak totally different languages, on totally different orders of magnitude. Whether the cell prays poorly or well, you aren’t going to be able to hear it. But you will know sooner or later whether it is healthy and functioning properly. If you appreciate your cells, you will pour fresh air and water and the best food into your system to keep them purring along. And that is what our overarching spirit, Gaia or Allah or Krishna or Christ or Nature or whatever you want to call it, is doing. We should be content to take the plethora of blessings that pour down on us moment by moment and make our life as beautiful and effective as we possibly can. Our best prayer is simply appreciating how much we are truly blessed in being alive. That is the response “God” wants. Not from a bunch of groveling and fearful nincompoops afraid to rock the boat, but offered by energetic and questing expressers of the possibilities of life waiting to be unfolded and experienced.

         Well, and yes, prayer can also be a way of accessing our inner resources, of which we know very little. By addressing the Unknown we orient to it. We can sometimes transcend our limited image of ourselves if we imagine there is something beyond what we know, and this is a basic concept for living a dynamic life. Cells, after all, constantly communicate with each other through mysterious mechanisms that look similar to telepathy. We should always strive to communicate with the mystery within us. But what we specifically say or pray doesn’t access the Great Spirit. The Great Spirit is already doing more for us than we can ever appreciate, even if we are filled with appreciation. In conclusion, living intelligently and well is the best offering we can make to acknowledge the bounty that we are eternally blessed with. That is the Gita’s final word here.


48)         Activity naturally inborn in one, though accompanied by defects, ought not to be abandoned; all undertakings are enveloped by defects, as fire by smoke.


         Krishna repeats the exhortation with which he began the chapter, that appropriate and natural activity is not to be abandoned. Here he acknowledges that even when the requirement of natural aptitude is met, life will still have imperfections. Existence is too complex for everyone to be at the top of their game all the time: there will be winners and losers, eaters and eaten, flies in the ointment, peeling paint, termites in the foundation, you name it. Krishna recognizes that setbacks can cause us to lose heart, so he is giving Arjuna one more big blast of support before turning him loose. We have to be a little bit tough to stand up to normal adversity.

         All manifestations exhibit a kind of symmetry initially, in the theoretical stage, but as soon as they are actualized they begin to become corroded. Anything created begins to deteriorate, on its way back to the unmanifest state. Rousseau’s hypothetical tree sprouts straight and true, but is deformed by the elements, wind and lack of water and nutrients, insect attacks, and so on. Defects, accidents, serendipity, degeneration, aging—none of these subtracts from the core perfection, but they cannot be escaped either.

         Those who claim that tragedy is proof God doesn’t exist or care about the human race are barking up a nonexistent tree. You should try to imagine a world with only the positive side of every coin before you go complaining about God. Life requires change, and conversely lack of change means absence of life. Change is interpreted by us as being alternately positive and negative, the sine wave of existence. In a very real sense, then, it is our deformities that determine our uniqueness, our individuality. Our weathering makes us beautiful, even if it is often a tragic beauty.

         It is incumbent on the spiritual person to accept that all things fall short of the imagined ideal. Frustration lurks for those who insist that their visions come to pass exactly as they expect them to. The wise seer who acts without expectation knows that what they hope for will never match actual results. Even most scientific experiments only produce an approximation that statistically more or less matches the “established” hypothesis. So let go. Relax. Let it be.

         Krishna’s valuable advice here is that whenever something goes wrong in your life—as it surely will—first correct what you can, but as quickly as possible you should shrug off any feelings of despair or disappointment and carry on. Treat it as a real world lesson, an enlargement of your data bank, and try again, only with better information. No one, not even the most awe-inspiring genius or holy seer, has it totally together. All have plenty more to learn, in keeping with their fields of interest. And we should not imagine that the obstacles of life are intentionally placed there by an invisible hand to direct us away from our inner nature. That would be a false conclusion to draw from the jolts we will inevitably experience. What they provide is an opportunity to reassess our direction in the present, so we can update our trajectory.


49)         He whose reason is unattached in all situations, whose Self has been won over, from whom desire has gone, by renunciation reaches the supreme perfection of transcending action.


         At the beginning of the chapter Krishna defined renunciation as giving up desire-prompted action, since by definition one cannot give up necessary action. At that time he recommended relinquishment of fruits as a purificatory practice. Now renunciation itself takes center stage. We have to see this as a culminating moment in the spiritual development of the disciple. Relinquishment leads in the end to a profoundly renounced state of mind, one that could easily be called a state of no mind.

         The verse lists intellectual attachment, doubt, and desire as the three stumbling blocks to perfect renunciation. We have already examined each in detail. These are all ways we direct ourselves away from our dharma, usually without realizing it. In fact, in thinking we are choosing the right course, we may be easily carried away, buoyed by a false confidence. This is a very subtle matter. Krishna’s final advice is to carefully scrutinize every aspect of a situation before acting, but there are also times when spontaneity is not only superior but essential.

         Renunciation, then, must help us to make that kind of higher order decision, as well as the mundane ones that are usually the preferred subject matter of commentators. “No mind” is a pure state where we are hyper alert to the nuances of our options.

         What this means in practice is that in the early going one must parry the desires and selfish impulses that arise in situations, but when yoga is adhered to with dedication these eventually lose their power to impel us to action. While the urges may continue to rise up, they are then seen as inconsequential bubbles and not as mandatory directives. Once this becomes an established attitude, the yogi is free to meet any contingency with bountiful expertise. This is the “supreme perfection of transcending action,” meaning desire-prompted action. It is the moment when the disciple becomes a potential guru: when the taker becomes a giver, or at least a hearer of that “still small voice” within. While the ensuing descriptions make it sound as if the yogi then drops out of the world, not all do. The dropping out is a state of mind, not a lifestyle choice, so some yogis remain available and wholly engaged with other people and events. It is merely a matter of personal inclination whether they stay or go.


50)         How he who has ascended to perfection thereby obtains the Absolute, that supreme consummation of wisdom—that do you learn from Me, O Arjuna, in brief.


         Having concluded the most actual or horizontal section of the Gita’s teachings in verses 41-49, Krishna now reviews the most significant elements of Arjuna’s spiritual instruction, prior to the grand finale.

         Once again, the Absolute is said to be the supreme consummation of wisdom. This reminds us it is not the consummation of arcane exercises or any set of beliefs. It’s all about understanding. The practicing of superstitious rituals and noisy carrying on in the name of Krishna are excrescences that attempt to validate themselves with reference to the Gita, but a thoughtful student will not be fooled. As IV, 33 taught us long ago, “Superior to any sacrifice with (valuable) objects is the wisdom sacrifice; all actions have their culmination in wisdom, Arjuna.” Of course, before they culminate, actions can fall far short of wisdom. We should not be satisfied with a partial version, as humans so often are, because partiality does not reveal the Absolute.

         The Absolute is a principle of perfection, something that is always sought but rarely, if ever, attained. Human history is a continuum of disasters brought about by complacency with the status quo, and the proclamation of partial truths as absolute. If we ever learn to be content with admitting that there is more to know than what we already possess, we will be able to loosen up and stop fighting among ourselves.

         Recently Stephen Hawking made news by categorically declaring that life ends at death. Anyone who honestly admits that our vision is limited to this side of the transition and therefore the other side is unknown and probably unknowable, does not make headlines. So while science seeks certitude, it must not be satisfied that it is in possession of it. Historically speaking, humans squawk about everything being perfectly understood most loudly right before the next vast paradigm bursts upon us.

         Something in the spiritual experience magnifies the sense of certainty by tapping into an authentic deeper source of being, which becomes a more or less permanent source of inspiration and insight. The best scientists experience this without acknowledging it when they become enthralled with their investigations.

         There is yet another degree, when the famous white light floods consciousness, and this is called union with the Absolute. We can’t be certain exactly what it is, but it does have a profound impact on whoever encounters it, and it is apparently the goal of every manner of spiritual seeking. Probably all paths can lead there in some fashion, though they can also lead away from it, and most often do.

         As in Arjuna’s case, psychedelic visions can put us in touch with this level of consciousness, but since they aren’t permanent they have to be considered a mere glimpse, a “preview of coming attractions.” The strength of the intellect is a critical factor in whether these medicines have a beneficial effect or a harmful one. Weak-minded individuals are very likely to go off on tangents, magnifying shards of their surface consciousness instead of remaining in touch with the oceanic wellspring. Integrating the revealed wisdom that erupts in light into a sensible outlook is a major challenge, and Arjuna is very lucky to have had Krishna’s assistance every step of the way.

         The Gita never tires of insisting that our best understanding—our burning thirst for wisdom—has to be maintained throughout our search, so that we don’t fall prey to the stupidities that have claimed so many who have gone before us.


51-53) Endowed with pure reason, restraining the Self with firmness, detaching oneself from sound and other sense objects, and casting out liking and disliking,

  dwelling in solitude, frugal in diet, controlling speech, body, and mind, ever in meditative contemplation, resorting to dispassion,

  relinquishing egoism, power, arrogance, desire, anger, and possessiveness, free from ownership, and tranquil—he is worthy of becoming the Absolute.


         It is hoped that the joy of a yogic attitude will eventually light a flame in the heart, so that it is not drudgery but a delight to weave these teachings into daily experience. At the beginning, you need to set some time aside to review the meaning in your mind, and see how it applies to you specially. It doesn’t take too long—though this isn’t instant pudding—before it becomes ingrained. We learn best alone, after getting some guidance. This is private learning, the flight of the alone to the Alone….

         Just as the professor summarizes the class on the last day, hitting the high points in order to reinforce them in the minds of the alert students, or the coach gives the players a final pep talk before they take the field, Krishna sends Arjuna on his way with a cogent recapitulation of how best to carry on with his life.

         Most of these terms have been covered previously. This is basically a summary review of the high points of the well-lived life the Gita recommends. I’ll list a few references here:

         Reason - has not only its own chapter, IV, but is extolled throughout the Gita. The first close scrutiny comes in the second half of the second chapter, where yogic effort is seen to be the basis of well-founded reason.

         Restraining with firmness - Firmness was most exhaustively treated in this very chapter, verses 33-35. Also XVI, 3.

         Detachment – III, 19; V, 12; XIII, 8; and XVIII, 6-9.

         Equalizing likes and dislikes – V, 22. Equalization is the essence of yoga and is found throughout the work.

         Dwelling in solitude – XIII, 10. One can dwell in solitude right in the midst of a teeming populace, since it is absolutely a state of mind. The key is that we tend to seek ratification from our peers for what we think and do. A yogi learns to be self-ratifying, walking away from other people’s opinions whenever they don’t measure up to an intelligent assessment (though not when they only offend their self image). Outside opinions are usually worthy of consideration, but the final decision as to their value rests with the yogi. This often entails being a kind of outsider, since the herd instinct is very strong in humans, and authentic individuals are generally viewed with suspicion.

         The desire for attention from others is ludicrously extreme in many children, who always beg, “Watch me! Watch me!” A yogi knows that no one is truly watching, other than the self. The noise of other people’s opinions no longer deafens them, no longer wields either a positive or negative impact to knock them off their center.

         Frugal in diet really does sound like simply a bit of advice to eat lightly and not dwell on it unduly. I have expanded the meaning to include all that we take into ourself not only through the mouth, but also the senses and the mind. A single good idea well pondered over and digested is much more valuable than an entire philosophy wolfed down. IV, 30; XVII, 7-10.

         Controlling speech, body and mind – Most of Chapter VI, especially 34-36 deals with the subtleties of control. Each of these three topics has its own verse in XVII, 14-19.

         Ever in meditative contemplation – Again, Chapter VI, especially the introduction.

         Resorting to dispassion – III, 19; IV, 37; VI, 35.

         Relinquishing egoism, The group from verse 53 is a reiteration of terms from XVI, 18, where they are examples of hating the Absolute in one’s own and other people’s bodies. Here, relinquishing them paves the way for becoming the Absolute. Many of these are dealt with in XII, 13-14. Egoism itself is addressed in XIII, 8; XVII, 5-6.

         Power – VII, 11 (proper power); XVII, 5-6. The corrupting influence of power is legendary, so yogis resist whatever temptations come their way. Power is a horizontal value that inevitably absorbs more and more time and effort. There are plenty of people who have wielded power without succumbing to corruption, though they don’t often make the history books. Narayana Guru stands high in their company. Their secret is to attain a meaningful measure of realization first, and then the power comes as a natural consequence of their edified state. The norm is to itch for power first as a means to achieve desirable ends, long before wisdom appears on the scene. Then life plays an educational game to demonstrate how utterly destructive such desires can be.

         Arrogance – XVI, 4. Arrogance is the opposite of humility. A humble person is aware of their finitude, which opens them to further growth. Arrogance over-compensates for feelings of inadequacy by presuming superior knowledge. Though often associated with aggressiveness, it can also be passive, exuding a quiet self-confidence that you have all the answers, or at any rate all you need. Either way it forms an effective barricade against outside input, otherwise known as learning.

         The ego is magnificently well defended, and only delights like love or harmony or wisdom can dissolve its defensive barricades. It cannot fight these forces of peace head on, so it finds an escape hatch out the back, by perversely converting them into threats that must be evaded.

         From the ego’s perspective, yielding control to a greater awareness is as threatening as an alien invasion. We take great pains in the Gurukula classes to show how apparently hostile forces can be treated as beneficial ones, to make the expansion easier to undergo. But this is the moment when seekers have to take themselves in hand. The ego will never admit that it feels threatened; it is much more clever than that. Instead, it paints the teacher as stupid, irrelevant, or even manipulative. Dissatisfaction sets in. Where once the unalloyed light of truth beckoned, now you begin looking for faults. Minor quirks can be upgraded into huge sins with a little cosmetic imagination. Very subtly, the ego convinces you to go look elsewhere for your enlightenment, so you can go back to a beginning stage, introductory and unthreatening. Once again it has subtly tricked you, and you don’t even know it.

         This aspect of egoism, where it toys with its own amelioration while simultaneously resisting it with all its wiles, is the reason so many pass from one spiritual school to the next, drawn by lurid expectations, but essentially avoiding getting down to cases. There are plenty of charlatans out there peddling amusement park spirituality, and like hawkers at a carnival they are intriguing for a moment. Then the glow fades and it’s time to move along to the next freak show. This carnival is the greatest show on earth! If you are lucky enough to find a sincere and dedicated teacher of a superb philosophy, you should hang on for all it’s worth. Chances like that don’t come very often. The urge to move along should be taken for exactly what it is: the defensive tactic of a threatened ego, and not surrendered to.

         A teacher has to walk a fine line between guiding the seeker and letting them discover their independence. The seeker should be aware of the crucial role of an outside adviser to assist them over the hurdle of superficiality, and must actively seek such help. The teacher is waiting for the invitation because, ego or no, the initiative has to come from the seeker. That way there is no possibility of developing an unhealthy dependency.

         Desire – Many places, including II, 10, 47, 55, 56, 62; III, 41; V, 3; XVI, 10;

         Anger – III, 37; XVI, 4, 12;

         Possessiveness – IV, 21;

         Free from ownership – Literally, freedom from the sense of mine-ness, usually translated along the lines of egoism. Since egoism has already been mentioned, Nataraja Guru added a salient aspect of it. Still, ownership is virtually the same as possessiveness. Most likely Vyasa wanted to doubly emphasize the relinquishment of selfishness.

         The ego is like the weather: everybody talks about it, but nobody does anything about it. Yet unlike the weather, the ego is eminently susceptible to our transformative efforts, and actually can be changed for the better.

         As often noted, the healthy aim is to expand the ego to be coextensive with the Absolute, not to destroy, eradicate, or damage it. Paradoxically, the larger the ego’s domain, the more accepting it becomes; whereas the smaller its purview, the more defensive and exaggerated it will be. Great souls are invariably humble, while the small-minded, compensating for their insecurity, tend toward grandiosity.

         Tranquil – Better known as shanti, peace. Obviously, not something to be relinquished! IV, 39; V, 29; XII, 12, 15.


54)         Becoming the Absolute, blissfully serene in the Self, he neither despairs nor hankers; equal-minded toward all beings, he attains a devotion to Me supreme in character.


         The next four verses are a veiled reprise of the Gita’s final graded declaration, “Become one in mind with Me; be devoted to Me; sacrifice to Me; bow down to Me;” given in both IX, 34 and XVIII, 65; that is, at the exact middle and the very end of the work. I have already discussed them in depth in the former verse, but here Krishna himself is elaborating their meaning. His descriptions in this section make it much easier for us to use them to assess our own relationship to the Absolute.

         Krishna begins by expounding the first and most sublime state of yoga, “Become one in mind with Me.” Whatever the phrase may mean from our detached, scientific perspective, it manifests as a profound serenity and contentment that is at the same time superbly awake and alert. It refers to the totally unified state of mind, seeing none but the Absolute everywhere, in all beings, in all circumstances.

         This is the state of the great souls who are our ultimate inspiration, and Krishna accords them the highest status of supreme devotion. Any sense of separateness has to have been relinquished for oneness to occur.


55)         Through devotion he comes to know Me, how far comprehensible I am and who, in accord with first principles; then, having known Me philosophically, he immediately enters into Me.


         One small step removed from total absorption is indicated in the invitation to “be devoted to Me.” One with unitive devotion immediately enters into the Absolute, because the separation is so slight. Devotion is equated with philosophical knowledge, in other words comprehending the Absolute as far as is possible. One must be at least some degree removed in order to apprehend what one is contemplating. Thus this level of minimal separation is perhaps the most intriguing to outside observers and fellow seekers.

         The Absolute is always spoken of as being incomprehensible, but we naturally proceed on the basis of what we comprehend. Krishna assures us that the devoted, attentive supplicant will be able to sort out the important gap between what is grasped and what is ungraspable. Confusion here has led many to disaster, when the analogue is mistaken for the reality. The truly devoted and humble disciple realizes that any conception of the Absolute falls subtly short of being the Absolute, and so refrains from total abandonment to a false image prior to complete absorption. And while they may conceptualize it as their favorite image, they acknowledge that others can and will have different images and be just as devout as they are.


56)         Although still continuing to do all actions in life, treating Me as his refuge, by My grace he obtains the everlasting undiminishing status.


         Continuing our diminishing degrees of absorption, this verse corresponds to Krishna’s invitation to “sacrifice to Me.” We can read this as ratification of our earlier definition of sacrifice as “freely chosen activity.” This verse encodes sacrifice as action carried out in the light of the Absolute while lacking the philosophical weight of the previous. By bringing in “My grace,” Krishna indicates that this opens the seeker to the benign influence of the Absolute. Here a person full of faith and reverence to all life continually reassesses their actions in the light of the unitive wisdom they have imbibed. It does not necessarily imply any overt form of worship, though it doesn’t rule it out either. There is a conscious dedication to the principle of the Absolute, of unity, that guides life as a whole.


57)         Mentally renouncing all actions into Me, regarding Me as the Supreme, resorting to unitive understanding, having Me wholly filling your relational consciousness,


         Finally, we have an elaboration of what it means when Krishna says, “bow down to Me.” This verse shows how subtle the progression of exteriorization is, sounding very much like the previous. We know, however, that this verse deals with those who are more or less conventional in their behavior, and who include the Absolute in their daily routines in a more pragmatic way.

         There is nothing trite or unsound here. In the last verse the Absolute was the refuge, while here it fills the consciousness from every angle, in a sense from the top, middle and bottom. The highest exterior perception treats the Absolute as the Supreme. In the middle range, unitive understanding brings the Supreme and the Ordinary together. And at the bottom, so to speak, is our relational consciousness, the part of us that interacts directly with the world around. Even on this level we are instructed to view the actual world as filled with the Absolute itself.

         When one is infused with the Absolute, all actions will effortlessly be dedicated to it. The bowing is an inward gesture and does not refer to any overt behavior.


58)         (Thus with) consciousness filled with Me, you will overcome all obstacles by My grace, but if, from egoism, you will not listen, you shall come to ruin.


         The short version Krishna gives is that selfish egoism is the primary enemy of realization, cooking up all kinds of excuses, while deviously disguising its selfish motivations by cloaking them in piousness, in order to justify its dominant perch. It is easy enough to theoretically side with the previous four verses while we read this, but the truth is that egoism is our norm. We may pay lip service to the fourfold way of Absolutism, while we tenaciously cling to our much narrower outlook behind our veneer of righteousness. Krishna describes this as not listening to or accepting his grace, and so coming to ruin.

         The ruin warned about is similar to the perishing from loss of reason of II, 63, stemming from attachment to selfish interests. This of course means a spiritual demise and not necessarily an objective disaster. While that is always a possibility with selfish actions, lots of highly successful people are unabashed egotists. The ruin involves the loss of the taproot of the Absolute, which nourishes the spirit, bringing joy and the rest of the salubrious qualities. Lacking inner nourishment, disconnected souls seek to replace it with a never-ending drive to quench their thirst with money, power or prestige.

         Instead of impaling ourself on the wheel of samsara, Krishna assures us that maintaining our living connection with the fountain source of our existence both sustains the joy and sweeps aside the obstacles the everyday world is filled with.

         In the most practical sense, this means we have to keep an open mind, because as soon as it’s closed we will no longer see clearly enough to avoid crashing into any number of dilemmas we should have anticipated. Yoga is not a way of ignoring reality, but a heightened proficiency of engagement with it.

         Nataraja Guru includes (Thus with) to show that the previous four verses describe how the fourfold consciousness is filled with the Absolute. Otherwise we might be tempted to simply think of it in a matter of fact way. Filling consciousness with the Absolute is the supreme achievement for the wisdom student.


59)         If, resorting to egoism, you think, “I will not fight,” absurd is this, your resolution. Nature will compel you.


         The soaring spaceship of the Gita now hastens to its touchdown, setting the disciple back on the ground once more, now fully prepared to go forward to meet the challenges of the road ahead. The “fight” Krishna exhorts is our engagement with life, whatever that might mean to us specifically.

         The concept of fighting has been definitively established earlier, especially in Chapter II, and XI, 32-34, as referring to the ongoing travails in the struggle of existence, and not necessarily to actual warfare. Even for Arjuna, it seems, although he is in fact a warrior. A few of us may be standing in the middle of a real war like he is; others may be dealing with a family conflict, an illness, the need to find employment, school exams, swindlers, anything. No one goes through life without opposition, and even though tamasic people may willfully ignore their problems, imagining that is a good way to get around them, it only emphasizes the absurdity Krishna mentions here by the tragedies it engenders.

         The most astonishing thing of all is that when Arjuna returns to his normal life after his intense discipleship, the war is not around him any more. He enjoys a kind of “grace period,” a calm before the storm, as he comes into his own. Later of course, the Mahabharata epic will go into the blow by blow of the actual clash, and Arjuna will participate. But the Gita doesn’t revive the actual bloody battlefield, because Arjuna has temporarily transcended it through Krishna’s teachings. It will be for him to see later whether physical fighting is the right thing for him to do or not. And he will find that as a true warrior in a righteous battle he will want to fight. But for those us who have other challenges, the question is not where do we go to find a conflict. We should always meet life as it comes to us, and not find excuses to avoid what needs to be done here and now by looking elsewhere. The Gita is weighing in as a positivist text, an instruction manual for being alive on all levels. While taking its readers to the highest wisdom, it never loses sight of the practical and immediate demands of life.

         The compelling force of nature referred to here means that our battles will appear right in front of our face, so long as our eyes are open. “Chance” provides the very conflict we need to deal with next, like a series of well-designed training exercises. Since it was so far back, let me quote myself, from II, 32:


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

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


         There is a flow to life as a whole, really a torrent, and no matter how independent we are, we are carried along in it whether we realize it or not. A person who is passive will crash into many boulders and become entangled in underbrush along the banks, but an alert rafter can steer around most obstacles. It is heartbreaking to see someone caught in roots or grounded on a rock, piously pretending that they are acting spiritually by avoiding any effort to wrest themselves free. But so it often goes.

         The Gita calls us to take the oars and wade right out into the current. We are in for quite an exciting ride!


60)         That which, through confusion, you do not like to do—you shall do that very thing, helplessly, bound by your own nature-born action.


         Lawrence Gonzales, in his book Everyday Survival, (New York: Norton, 2008), has brought a modern eye to this very issue. He talks about the mental scripts the brain develops for efficiency in action and decision-making. While often very useful, they also screen out new and different factors that may well be of prime significance. These excerpts are found in pages 21-30. The book as a whole is highly recommended:


Smart people do some really stupid things from time to time…. This has to do with the way the brain processes new information. It creates what I call behavioral scripts to automate almost everything we do. Behavioral scripts are an extension of the concept of mental models, [which] make us more efficient at processing information…. An important feature of the script, however, is that when the right signal is sent, the script will run on its own, without our consent….

One of the most frequently ignored factors in our behavior is the way we form models and scripts and use them rather than information from the world itself in most of what we do…. This kind of coupling of mental models and scripts leads to intelligent mistakes in all walks of life…. This failure represents nothing more than the natural workings of the human brain. Over the eons, it has been good for survival to assume that what has happened before will never happen again, and that what has not happened yet never will.

These models and scripts form the basis not only of how we act but of what we perceive and believe. We tend not to notice things that are inconsistent with the models, and we tend not to try what the scripts tell us is bad or impossible….

The brain is an organ of experience, from which it fashions generalizations and analogies. These form the underlying assumptions that shape our behavior. Without deliberately disrupting them, we are slaves to their dictates.

Mental models make our world, but they also shape and constrain the possible. We can’t see, or at least can’t comprehend, things for which we have no mental models…. And these illusions on which we act can be very stable and difficult to overturn.


         Gonzales’—and the Gita’s—advice is to bring critical thinking to bear, and deliberately disrupt our mental models, called samskaras in Sanskrit.

         Especially notable is that what is often called ego, and so carries a taint of negativity, is seen to be the normal functioning of our brains as they have evolved to date. Thus there is no deliberate intention to obfuscate our behavior, only structural limits that lead us astray. If we so desire, we can push our amazing mental organ to transcend its habitual limits. It is capable of astounding quantum leaps, given the proper motivation. Krishna is summing up his teaching here with a powerful directive to perform precisely those kinds of leaps.

         Conventional thinkers read this verse exactly backwards, urging people to capitulate with their constraints, to “do their duty.” Such a view is a mark of utter failure to understand the purport of this magnificent wisdom teaching.


61)         The Lord dwells in the heart-region of all beings, O Arjuna, causing all beings to revolve through the principle of appearance, as if mounted on a machine.


         The very last reminder Krishna offers is that the Absolute is the core of all beings. This awareness is the centerpiece of all holistic philosophy, justifying all the liberal tenets that the Gita brims with, like compassion, non-hurting, generosity, unselfishness, and the rest.

         From a scientific viewpoint, the universe began from a single event. Within a very small fraction of a second, it took on various immutable laws that determined its shape and character. At present we are familiar with a few of those laws. In classical Newtonian physics, the history of the universe unfolds like a gigantic machine chugging along on automatic pilot. Even most living beings are completely determined by the forces acting upon them. Only with the advent of sentience does the possibility of non-mechanistic behavior arise, although it is weighed down by the predominance of rigid natural laws on every hand.

         Scientists like to imagine that this stunning evolutionary expansion is a blind process, while religious types attribute intelligence to it. In the final analysis it doesn’t matter, because the outcome is the same no matter what we believe. We are better off to direct our energies to fostering the evolutionary process itself, to discover and implement some of the many laws and principles that are yet to be part of the commons. Each new principle has an unbounded potential for exploration and extrapolation. Doing so expands our minds to their utmost potential, bringing about whatever degree of freedom is possible.

         At the heart of the miracle of the universe, and containing all its laws while not being limited by them in any way, is the Absolute. It is like a focal point and hub for all that is going on, along with everything that is happening on the wheel of existence.

         While the Absolute may not be directly in charge of every being all the time, or may not cause it to act as we might wish, it is nonetheless present. Its noninterference is what gives us our freedom to choose, a value that earthly life is just beginning to appreciate. The “still small voice” of the Absolute can be overruled by the noisy proclamations of damaged souls. That means we should follow Sri Ramakrishna’s advice to not kiss the hissing cobra. The “secret knowledge” that the Absolute is the cause of all things is for our own edification and guidance, and may not have become known to everyone we encounter.

         The “principle of appearance” is maya, a term glibly bandied about, much misunderstood. Often it’s thought to mean that everything that happens is an illusion; a profoundly depressing and disorienting thought. Though maya has a broad range of meanings, for our purposes we can think of it as the mental play staged by the brain to interpret its environment. We cannot grasp reality as such, so our brain constructs an approximation based on sense inputs and memories, and that’s what we relate to. Maya is the acknowledgement that what we see is only an interpretation, and should never be mistaken for absolute reality. Awareness of our limitations circumvents many problems of intolerance. That being said, we are definitely capable of improving the accuracy of the passion play in our mind, which, when all is said and done, is what the Gita’s teachings intend to accomplish.

         Everyone who has not learned to act independently is motivated by a combination of instinct and conditioned habits. As Lawrence Gonzales pointed out in the excerpt in the previous verse commentary, these very natural qualities also constrain us to act out certain sequences of behavior that may or may not be germane to the present situation. The Gita is a textbook for freeing ourselves from these “automated behaviors,” which make us helpless captives, going forward “as if mounted on a machine.” This wording makes you wonder what type of mechanical device they were riding around on in 500 BCE.

         Regardless, we well know what our mechanistic tendencies look like now. Historically, the haves oppress the have-nots, and the divergence of the two sides increases over time, until the oppression becomes unbearable. Then the have-nots rebel against the haves, wipe them out, and instigate some improvements. In enforcing the improvements, they gradually become the new oppressors, and so on, over and over.

         The mechanical version of individual life repeats a similar pattern of futility. A person is born and quickly inculcated with a fixed program of rules and obligations, which they are forced to accept. Life consists of an endless series of oppressive events that direct its course seemingly beyond control. The duty of the individual is to adapt to the prevailing paradigm as comfortably as possible, which affords some respite from the onslaught. Soon, almost as a relief, death comes to erase the debit sheet and offer whatever solace there is.

         Because of this kind of tunnel vision, humans have so far been unable to curtail the destruction of the very planet we live on. It will take seriously creative thinking to bring our headlong rush to the brink to a halt in time. Mechanically repeating what seemed to work in the past is a recipe for certain doom.

         Both communally and in isolation, then, humans seldom know anything meaningful about freedom, which they try to implement, if at all, with programs and directives that are the opposite of freeing. It doesn’t help that our brains habituate to almost any intolerable situation, and then are content to maintain the status quo ad infinitum. Yoga, by contrast, seeks to foster a life of true freedom, filled with nuance, serendipity, and artistic transformations, one fully capable of changing course when the need arises.

         This verse should not be taken to mean that it is the Lord’s will that we stay stuck in machinelike repetitive lives. The divine impetus arising from within is ever creative, stimulating loving joy along with intellectual excitement, among other things. The more we can free ourselves from conditioned behavior, the more open we will be to the genius that is flowing through us, guiding us toward greatness. The next verse expresses how to bring about the release from our mechanical oppression: by “seeking refuge” in the Absolute.


62)         Seek refuge in Him alone in all ways, Arjuna; by His grace you shall obtain the peaceful abode, supreme, everlasting.


         At the very last instant of the teaching, Krishna switches from the first person to the third person in referring to the Absolute. This is a unique moment in the wisdom transmission. In case Arjuna has any lingering attachment to Krishna as a human Guru, which would prejudice his pure neutrality in relation to the universe as a whole, Krishna is gently turning his disciple’s gaze away from him toward the vast Unknown. Everything and everyone is the Absolute. To believe it exists in a special person or place may be a tolerable intermediate step, as Chapter XII eloquently expressed, but it is not the ultimate realization. This is a supremely touching moment, as Krishna gently redirects the love of his faithful disciple away from himself so it can beam onto the whole world.

         A refuge is often taken literally, a fortress in the midst of a desert wilderness where battered refugees can go for protection. It should be understood as a metaphor, as the phrase “in all ways” hints. Whenever we are drawn out into confusion, by redirecting our thoughts to the Absolute we return to stability and heightened awareness.

         The “peaceful abode” is not a place, it is a state of mind. It is everlasting because it makes perfect sense, and so cannot be forgotten.


63)         Thus has wisdom more secret than all that is secret been declared to you by Me; critically scrutinizing all, omitting nothing, do as you like.


         The Gita is a graduate course in freedom, and the diploma it offers is individual empowerment. This is brought home in two explosive verses at the end of the work, this one and 66.

         Krishna first calls this wisdom more secret than secret. What can he mean? Ordinary secrets are like the mysteries of nature. They can be discovered with a little investigation. They are piecemeal secrets. Understanding the Absolute means penetrating a wholesale secret, requiring wisdom of another order of magnitude entirely, a whole new state of mind. As noted earlier, it is not a problem to be solved, it is a realization to be lived.

         We have arrived at the Gita’s ultimate teaching, simple and direct: First eliminate all false factors, by engaging in a heartfelt wisdom sacrifice (questioning, pondering and studying). When all falsehood is removed, only truth remains. Then you are properly prepared to act freely under the guidance of your own intelligence. Such a stupendous achievement is indeed more secret than any mere secret. It cannot be attained simply by cleverness, or mechanistic ritualism, or by following a formula, or anything that can be spelled out. It is the evidence of true maturity, attained through bipolar affiliation with a guru and thus with the Absolute itself.

         To do as you like and abandon all duties for an unwise person would be a license to run amok. This may sound like encouragement to break the law, but we have to remember that Arjuna has been taught a comprehensive scheme of the total purport of existence. Krishna only gives this highest teaching after the full course of instruction is completed, and tempers it with the admonishment to critically scrutinize everything and omit nothing before doing what you like. With a full understanding of how we interact with the Absolute and how the Absolute sustains and nurtures us all—every one and every thing, without exception—such freedom can at last be creatively implemented. When you are absolutely convinced that everything is united in its essence, kindness, compassion and all the rest of the positive virtues are as natural as breathing.

         Lacking an awareness of the whole, people’s actions fall short of perfection in direct proportion to their limited outlook. But because Arjuna has plumbed the depths and scaled the heights, and has opened himself to embrace everyone and everything as equally valid and valuable, he has earned the right to his freedom. Where less accomplished seekers bicker over their partial viewpoints, Arjuna has gained an all-encompassing awareness. As Richard Wilhelm, in his comments on the I Ching, Hexagram 52, Keeping Still, writes:


When a man has thus become calm, he may turn to the outside world. He no longer sees in it the struggle and tumult of individual beings, and therefore he has that true peace of mind which is needed for understanding the great laws of the universe and for acting in harmony with them. Whoever acts from these deep levels makes no mistakes.


         Saint Augustine advised much the same thing as Krishna does here, and as simply: “Love, and do what you like.” Thomas Merton, in The New Man (The New American Library, 1963, p. 14) expresses it this way: “Man is truly alive when he is aware of himself as the master of his own destiny to life or to death, aware of the fact that his ultimate fulfillment or destruction depend on his own free choice and aware of his ability to decide for himself. This is the beginning of true life.”

         In Dante’s Purgatory, there is a most touching moment when disciple Dante is about to emerge from his long journey through Hell and Purgatory to enter into Paradise, and his guru Virgil similarly promotes him to his own recognizance:


    When under us the whole of the stairway

had run and we were on the highest step

of all, Virgil fixed his eyes upon me


    and said, “You have seen the temporal fire

and the eternal, my son, and you have come

to where I, by myself, can see no farther.


    I have brought you here with understanding

and art. From here on your pleasure must guide you.

You have emerged from the steep ways and the narrow.


    Look at the sun which shines on your forehead,

look at the young grass, the flowers, the trees

that the earth here, all by itself, grows.


    Until [you have your heart’s desire]

you may sit here or wander among these.


    Expect no further word or sign from me.

Your own will is whole, upright, and free,

and it would be wrong not to do as it bids you.


    therefore I crown and miter you over yourself.”


—end of Canto XXVII, Dante’s Purgatory, translated by W.S. Merwin (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000)


         Allen Mandelbaum notes, as Dante eagerly enters Paradise immediately thereafter: “Dante’s keenness ‘to search within’ and ‘around the forest’ is so great that he does not respond to Virgil’s last words.” Happily, Arjuna will take the time to express his sincere appreciation in verse 73, before entering his own version of paradise, inhaling the rarified air of a free human being.


         While this verse may strike the uninitiated as if it propounds nothing more than rational scheming, figuring out the game and then acting according to the rules or breaking them if possible, it means much more than that. Pondering deeply puts you in touch with the treasury of your unconscious, where all our recondite memories become accessible. We each have a nearly infinite supply of artistically coherent information within us. By sitting quietly and directing our attention toward that vast reserve, our intuition is allowed to percolate to the surface, informing our conscious awareness. Intuition means in-teaching, teaching from within. Whether or not you believe in a benign intelligence upholding the universe, curiously an excellent course of action will appear before you as a kind of secondary effect of the contemplation. Doing as you like involves bringing your best understanding to bear on how to implement the intuitive path that has been revealed to you. You didn’t consciously choose it, it has been chosen by something deep within you: your self, or in the contemplative sense your capital S Self.

         Favoring selfish interests would pollute this delicate process, obscuring the intuition and substituting everyday transactional values, even very negative ones. That’s one major reason Arjuna has had the guidance of a guru, who taught him incontrovertibly to avoid acting for his personal interest alone.

         Krishna’s words in modern English might be “Think things over, then make your own decision and do the best you can to carry it out.” The recommended attitude can be applied to much more than a disciple’s spiritual quest. It is also perfect for a parent’s relationship to a child, for instance. Children are natural seekers of truth, dedicated yet delicate disciples. Over-managing their lives has been shown to be extremely detrimental to their development. A healthy self grows out of struggles and dealing with conflicts and paradoxes. If a child is shielded from difficulties, their life will be more empty and less meaningful, resulting in depression and loss of self-confidence.

         By a surprisingly early age kids have imbibed the values of their parents—the real ones, not the make-believe values they are constrained to pay homage to. Beyond that they need some support, but also to be permitted to develop their own point of view independently. Insecure parents pressure them to be what they themselves failed to be, undermining their natural development, often with unfortunate results. Krishna here demonstrates the attitude of a wise parent. He trusts his disciple, and so releases him to blaze his own way. The way may not always be perfect, but it will be his own, and it will be as good as he can make it. Thus one more wise soul is added to the roster of planet Earth.

         Critical scrutiny includes serious preparations for unitive action, both mental and physical. Only after laying the proper groundwork will it be possible to do what you have chosen to do as an expert, and being expert means going beyond the initial preparations to put on a transcendental performance. Take the example of a master chef preparing a meal. All the training and knowledge, the assembly of ingredients, and the well-appointed kitchen comprise the critical scrutiny. When all those are in place, the act of actual cooking is like a dance. The chef is free to put “soul” into the food instead of wondering what the next step should be or searching for a missing spice or a lost pot. There is no doubt in any observer’s mind that it is an art form, and the result bears that mysterious “something” that distinguishes true art. While a dish prepared by a recipe-following bumbler might be good enough, the master chef’s same meal will be a delicious inspiration.

         Obviously, no legitimate laws are broken in this kind of creative endeavor. And “doing as you like” does not mean the chef walks out and goes to a movie when she doesn’t feel like making dinner. The phrase refers to expertise in action that is in keeping with one’s natural abilities and inclinations, and directed to the task at hand.

         Musical performance is another example. Critical scrutiny means having an excellent instrument, learning the craft over many years, and having beautiful pieces to play. When all this is ready, the musician dives into the music with complete abandon, following their bliss. Any audience member will be touched by the quality of the effort, as long as they themselves don’t block the experience with hypercritical thoughts or inattention. The musician will experience the profound satisfaction of sublime expression, a secret that is not available to just anyone. It is the rarest of achievements, but by no means out of reach.

         Lastly, as yogis we should turn everything around, including this most secret final teaching. So here we could ask ourself: what do I know well enough that I can be confident that whatever I decide would in fact be correct? There are many areas of expertise where we are ignorant and should by no means decide for ourselves. But here we have been thoroughly taught the Science of the Absolute. If we have learned commensurately with the teaching, do we now have the confidence to trust our own decisions? If so, then we have truly partaken of what the Guru has offered us. Having that kind of confidence is also called being in tune with your dharma.

         We may only gradually become aware of the power and import of the tremendous freedom we have inherited just by being born. Even though it’s our birthright, it is usually lost to conscious awareness early in the game. All that has gone before in this study is just to learn how to be yourself once again. Be really yourself. That’s the most precious gift to all of us, you included. In sharing this attitude lies the hope of the human species on this good earth. Aum.


64)         Listen again to My supreme word, the most secret of all; because you are greatly beloved of Me, I will tell you what is for your good.


         At first this sounds like a direct contradiction of the last verse. There the idea was for Arjuna to act on his own recognizance, and now Krishna is going to tell him what to do. But what he is about to tell Arjuna is to abandon all duties and become united with him—about as general a recommendation as there is. Arjuna still must follow his own light every step of the way, in every decision.

         Moreover, author Vyasa makes it plain that this is the most secret moment of all. The supreme Word is a vibrational force that Krishna is imparting to Arjuna at the culmination of the discipleship. Arjuna is secretly graduating from disciple to Guru as we look on.

         Much is made in Christianity of the Word of God, and the “supreme word” is essentially the same concept. Words—concepts—vibrations—are the motive force of the universe. Science conceives of the Word of God as the Big Bang. It amazes me that no one seems to have made this connection.

         The secret of the Word is in its utterance, its Source. After being spoken it bursts into manifestation and becomes overt as All This. Our penetration of the secret is therefore a reduction back from the actual to the potential out of which it has emerged. The yogi looks within appearances to discern their essence—called in the Gita Brahman, the Absolute—in a similar process to a physicist looking back in time by peering out into space toward the point of origin of the visible universe.


65)         Become one in mind with Me; be devoted to Me; sacrifice to Me; bow down to Me; you shall come to Me alone; I promise you, in truth, you are dear to Me.


         To let us in on the secret transmission taking place, Krishna reprises the last verse of Chapter IX almost exactly, enunciating the different ways and levels for relating directly with the Absolute. The repetition of this verse at the exact midpoint and the very end underscores its preeminence.

         In its earlier iteration this verse was a directive toward the ultimate attainment of union with the Absolute, but now it has a slightly different meaning: the merger specified is actually taking place. Due to the limitations of language we have to read between the lines. Krishna telling Arjuna his secret word for his own good implies that he is imparting the grace of wisdom transmission. Instead of a recommendation, now it is a fait accompli. Arjuna is becoming one with the Absolute at this very moment.

         The four levels of union with the Absolute are given in the exact same terms, and only the last part differs somewhat. The first time Krishna concluded: “unifying thus yourself, you shall surely come to Me, your supreme Goal none other than Me.” We can see that Arjuna was being encouraged to attain a new state in the future. Here, with the explicit promise, pregnant with endearment, attainment of that goal is immanent.

         With the subtle shift from goal to arrival between the two places in the text, we can presume that Arjuna and Krishna are coming together in unity on all the levels mentioned. These are, in order, the spiritual, intellectual, emotional, and the physical. The beauty of this moment perhaps should not be overly disturbed by written words. It is certainly one of the supreme moments in all of literature.


66)         Abandoning all duties, come to Me, the One, for refuge; I shall absolve you from all sins; do not despair.


         Krishna counsels complete surrender into the Absolute, and we can presume Arjuna is actualizing it as his Guru breathes the truth into him. This is the final teaching of this heartbreakingly spectacular work of transcendent genius. From here on there is a return to the epic context and a gathering up of loose ends, with a nod of appreciation to the participants, for all the world like the falling sparks trailing a stupendous display of fireworks that has just had its “grand finale.”

         “Knowledge cannot be freed from its conditions and colorations unless the seeker who aims at such freedom withdraws attention from the senses and the surface mind and silently surrenders the ego again and again to the Higher Consciousness in adoration of the glory of the Absolute.” This comment from Nitya Chaitanya Yati on page 2 of Meditations On The Self reveals the same secret.

         The question of duty (a translation of dharma here) is succinctly summed up in this verse. The program is very simple: abandon everything, and what’s left must be the truth, the real you. All your many “identities” are laid over the ground of the Absolute within, your gender, age, job, education, sexual orientation, likes and dislikes, and on and on. They are not really you, though you’ve been taught that they are exactly who you are. If you can let them go you will find yourself automatically resting in the Absolute, in what Krishna calls a refuge. There you will discover you are far more than all your relativistic aspects taken together. The summum bonum is not only greater than its parts, it isn’t even made up of its parts at all.

         A subtle dialectic factor saves this from the old fashioned concept of an abased mortal groveling at the feet of a powerful god. The message of freedom is profound and absolute: abandon all duties. If this is taken purely in an egotistical sense it is an invitation to capriciousness, as already noted. There is need to refer to an absolute norm beyond the ego so that the end result is harmony rather than chaos. This balancing, or normative, factor “absolves you of all sins” based on a selfish or partial orientation. Krishna, as the Absolute, is not to be seen as outside, but as the true essence within all beings, including you.

         Needless to say, the familiar claim that the Gita imparts duties on its devotees is completely off the mark. This verse should lay that hackneyed yet popular notion to rest once and for all. If we have any duty, it is to throw off all obligatory matters and become our true selves. Following rules or guidelines is utterly contrary to the spirit of the work.


67)         This is never to be spoken about by you to one spiritually undisciplined, nor to one devoid of devotion, nor to one indisposed to listen, nor to one who denies Me.


         Without the reference to an absolute norm, the directions to do as you like and abandon all duties could easily become destructive and self-serving. The blessing of total freedom comes correctly at the very end of this most profound study, when the disciple is properly prepared to hear it and benefit from it.

         Krishna’s cautionary advice here isn’t meant to be restrictive, only prudent. Restrictions might well bolster the egoistic us/them attitude that humans are ever prone to. The Gita is meant to be shared openly with anyone eager to hear its message. Examining each of the four unqualified types makes it clear that sharing with them would be inappropriate. These could equally apply to any advanced study, recalling Buddha’s reputed advice: “Do not teach those who do not want to learn.”

         Speaking of the ego, it has a diabolic feature of frequently protecting us from precisely the exposure that would benefit our whole being the most, because it perceives that it might diminish its dominance. All the attitudes cautioned against are egotistical techniques to preserve the supposedly blissful ignorance in which we repeatedly stumble into disaster. Awareness of this antithetical role of the ego is one of the key motivators to a sincere spiritual search.

         Curiously, the four categories provide an inverse dialectical match to the quintessential advice from verse 65 to be one with, be devoted to, worship, and bow down to the Absolute, so they add some shades of meaning to those positive exhortations. Oneness, then, is contrasted with lack of spiritual discipline; devotion with lack of devotion, logically enough; worship with the inability to listen and pay attention; and bowing down is the opposite of denying the Absolute. When read this way the hidden message is that contact with the Absolute is maintained with discipline: whenever the immediacy of oneness begins to slip into duality, discipline brings it back in tune. While there are many types of discipline, the Gita advocates a grounding in wisdom as best of all. Devotion is restored by drawing the attention back to the Absolute whenever we are tempted to perceive aspects of the world as being illegitimate. Worship implies listening closely, and bowing down means simply affirming the Absolute or the Totality as existent.

         The four stages of incompetence descend from the most plausible to the least, beginning with those who are very likely to be peripherally interested in Gita study.

         The “spiritually undisciplined” include the typical students who come to class irregularly, depending on their whim of the moment, sometimes showing interest but just as happy to pursue something else. What they hear during their spotty attendance mostly goes in one ear and out the other, making little or no impact on their lives, so of course it isn’t any different from other activities. Their ego is so confident of its inviolability that it permits dabbling in the subject, but pulls back as soon as there is a threat of actual transformation.

         Being spiritually undisciplined also includes those who take a small part for the whole and warp it to their own ends. Like the commentator who insisted in Chapter I, based on a narrow reading, that the Gita most assuredly asserts traditional caste distinctions, when it most assuredly does not. His mistake is like taking a movie review that claimed “This film is anything but enlightening, uplifting and highly worth seeing,” and quoting it as praising the film as being “enlightening, uplifting and highly worth seeing.” Happens all the time, but it isn’t honest. A sincere student puts a decent amount of effort into what they are studying, not being content to boast to their friends that they “know” the Gita after attending a class or two.

         Scriptures everywhere are debased by spiritually undisciplined readers who project their hopes and fears onto the text. The lion-tamer ego can adopt a powerful teaching, defang, declaw and castrate it, and keep it for a house pet. It is very difficult to completely excise our personal predilections from the true intent of a scripture, so the assistance of an able teacher is essential. An honest approach requires a large measure of discipline, of being prepared to alter our stance and admit our mistakes, opening the door to new possibilities.

         Being “devoid of devotion” basically means that a person doesn’t care enough. More than a passing interest, caring indicates a heightened intent, with real motivation for constructive change. If this isn’t present there would be a glaring mismatch between a passionate teacher and a humdrum student. Moreover, there is a modicum of respect needed that is not only common decency but it activates the listening faculty. It may be simply a willingness to pay attention. One who doesn’t have sufficient motivation is a waste of time to try to teach.

         Descending the ladder of unsuitable students are those who not only aren’t listening hard enough, they are “indisposed to listen”—who flatly don’t want to hear about it. The Gita is cautioning against evangelism, the pestering of people who draw their inspiration elsewhere. Krishna knows that everyone has their own route to the Absolute, so there is not a single “right” way. Recall IV, 11: “As each chooses to approach Me, even accordingly do I have regard for him. My very path it is, O Arjuna, that all men do tread from every (possible) approach.”

         Pressuring people merely increases their resistance, and tricking the gullible with false promises, no matter how fervently you may believe them, is a venal sin if anything is. In a classic ego trip, evangelists displace their own shortcomings onto innocent bystanders, where they should be taking themselves to task. This includes parents who inculcate religious strictures in their children, imagining they are doing the “little sinners” a favor, when in fact they are deflating their spirits. Since the ego considers itself eternally blameless, all problems must be Somebody Else’s Fault.

         Lastly we should not try to argue with anyone who outright denies the Absolute or the Gita. They may want to evangelize you, so watch out! Sure, you can talk to such people, but there is no question of giving spiritual instruction. Their minds are already closed to what you have to offer, so the most that can be hoped for is introducing a small chink in their armor. If their ego suspects that the Gita might be an effective tool of liberation, their resistance will be that much greater.

         Krishna’s advice can be applied to more than just teaching the Gita. I am often amused by people who say something like “I don’t believe in metaphysics.” Ideas, thoughts and beliefs are all metaphysical, being beyond physical apparentness, so that statement is self-contradictory, using metaphysics to deny metaphysics. Likewise, those who deny the Absolute absolutely are boxing themselves into a self-created dead end. If you don’t accept any Absolute, you must at least accept a degree of possibility beyond what you claim to know, or you are simply being closed-minded and hypocritical.

         Nataraja Guru took pains to distinguish the absolute principle lurking at the heart of several prominent rationalist philosophies in his book Unitive Philosophy. Any philosophy or belief system must have a hub on which to turn, and knowing what it is brings coherence to the system, while denying it makes for chaos. But if someone is so sloppy in their thinking that they haven’t taken the trouble to know their own absolute principle, there is no point in offering them spiritual instruction.

         Nataraja Guru also provided a simplified definition for the metaphysically resistant: the Absolute is the highest possible value. The value that each person considers the most dear or all-encompassing is the Absolute for them. And no one is being asked to accept another person’s highest value, only to look into what theirs is.

         Krishna’s idea here is not to make the Gita out as a secret doctrine, but only that a minimal dignity be preserved, so that it’s transformative message falls on fertile ground.

         The Bible has a parallel teaching, important enough to be repeated in three of the four gospels of Jesus. It is one of the few parables where Jesus explains the meaning, more or less. Non-Christians should keep in mind that the devil or Satan represents the selfish aspect of the ego. This is the version from Luke 8.4-15:


And when much people were gathered together, and were come to him out of every city, [Jesus] spake by a parable:
A sower went out to sow his seed: and as he sowed, some fell by the way side; and it was trodden down, and the fowls of the air devoured it.
And some fell upon a rock; and as soon as it was sprung up, it withered away, because it lacked moisture.
And some fell among thorns; and the thorns sprang up with it, and choked it.
And other fell on good ground, and sprang up, and bare fruit an hundredfold. And when he had said these things, he cried, He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.
And his disciples asked him, saying, What might this parable be?
And he said, Unto you it is given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of God: but to others in parables; that seeing they might not see, and hearing they might not understand.
Now the parable is this: The seed is the word of God.
Those by the way side are they that hear; then cometh the devil, and taketh away the word out of their hearts, lest they should believe and be saved.
They on the rock are they, which, when they hear, receive the word with joy; and these have no root, which for a while believe, and in time of temptation fall away.
And that which fell among thorns are they, which, when they have heard, go forth, and are choked with cares and riches and pleasures of this life, and bring no fruit to perfection.
But that on the good ground are they, which in an honest and good heart, having heard the word, keep it, and bring forth fruit with patience.


68)         He who gives this supreme secret to My devotee, thereby doing for Me supreme devotion, shall doubtless come to Me.


         Having eliminated the unworthy students and non-students, life may occasionally bring the blessing of a sincere seeker of truth to a legitimate remover of darkness or guru. Teaching the Gita is a special form of devotion, in that you have to really give your full attention to it. As a student you process some things you hear, and miss others while you are absorbing what struck you earlier. A teacher, on the other hand, must ponder every bit and explain it in a way that can be understood by others. Additionally, the incisive questions of the student call up appropriate responses from deep in the memory banks—or even deeper. Because of this, a dedicated teacher undoubtedly learns the most from the exchange.

         Even after a lifetime of contemplation, when teaching the Gita I have frequently fielded questions I hadn’t considered yet. There is a moment of something like panic, when my ego realizes I don’t have a ready response and I can’t run away. Then I allow myself to sink into the question, and quite quickly an appropriate response will begin to come to the surface. As my conscious mind grasps the import, it lights up with additional elaborations, and an answer begins to flow. It’s a kind of ecstasy, really. The questioner may well be satisfied, but for me the whole thing will be turned over in my mind for a long time afterward, with new insights continuing to surface. So where the ego might have taken the question almost as a threat, the psyche as a whole takes it more like a door opening into a secret crypt. Without the question the tomb would possibly remain unopened and undiscovered for a very long time. This is one way of reading “My devotee… shall doubtless come to Me.”


69)         Nor is there besides such a one, among men, any who is the highest performer of dear acts, nor shall there be for Me another dearer on earth.


         This may sound somewhat excessive to the modern ear, with so many heroes and famous people endlessly hyped in the media, many of them proclaiming their proximity to God, but Krishna is speaking of the natural order of things, and not some egoistic free-for-all. Dearness is not necessarily related to grandiosity. Effectiveness is the key. One life authentically touched is better than benumbing an entire populace.

         Endearment is somewhat foreign to the modern mind, and this is a great tragedy. Because we have learned to be distrustful of other people, we reject affection even as we crave it. We fear that if we open ourselves up to love, something bad will happen and it will turn into pain. That does occur often enough in the transactional world. As a result, many people rely on imaginary beings that can never betray their trust because they don’t exist in the first place. The only problem is that empty imaginations can also let us down when what we expect fails to materialize. If with diligence and luck we can find a true guru with whom we can dare to receive loving affection, it opens many doors.

         Dearness to the Absolute manifests as a continual inner flow of loving inspiration. I have to admit that a close study such as I have made over the past many years of commenting on every verse of the Gita, has been brim full of rewards in the form of very satisfying insights. Time and again I have read one of the “throwaway” verses that sound obvious and needless of elaboration, only to be drawn into a wonderful meditation on its implications. It has been exceptionally thrilling, like finding my way into an underground repository of ancient wisdom, which is exactly what it is.


70)         And he who will study this dialogue of ours, conducive to righteousness, by him (in effect) I shall have been worshipped through the wisdom sacrifice; so I hold.


         Krishna underscores that studying the Gita is itself a form of the wisdom sacrifice that brings seekers most efficiently into communion with the Absolute. Out of the endless ways to relate to truth, in Krishna’s estimate the wisdom sacrifice is the best. To recapitulate, this means listening in humility to words of wisdom, pondering over them and testing your understanding to verify its validity, then incorporating them as a part of your ongoing mental state and redefining them in your own terms. Engaging the understanding thus gained in service to the greatest good is the culmination of the wisdom sacrifice.

         The large number of people who disdain the intelligent appreciation of spirit, preferring to crank up their emotions unhindered by shaping thoughts, are out of kilter with Krishna’s decided opinion that this is true worship.

         Dialogue itself is central, and conducive to righteousness or right action. The dialectic of dialogue implies a back and forth, give and take between teacher and taught, achieving a unique synthesis greater than either one’s original position. The dynamism of an intelligent discussion is hard to exceed by any other method, including meditation. Meditation tends to replay what is already known or wished for, whereas wisdom sacrifice opens the psyche into uncharted territory.

         The Socratic Method, still honored in some circles as the preeminent technique for encouraging critical thinking and penetration into truth, uses a similar technique. In it the dialectical interplay between the participants is front and center.

         The modern tendency is to have a one-way conveyor belt of information from a pedagogue to the learner, and this has many serious shortcomings. The teacher becomes a kind of petit dictator, so skewed notions are never fed back and analyzed. Powerful groups quickly come to dominate the information process and shape it to their own ends, so they have a vested interest in discouraging independence. The goal is to create docile and loyal consumers. Nothing could be further from the aim of Yoga, which, by freeing and empowering the psyche, initiates an endless expansion of our soulful heart to discover its infinite potential.

         Earlier I compared the finale of the Gita to the trailing embers of a spectacular fireworks display, but it is perhaps more like the conclusion of a grand celestial symphony. Knowing what we now know, Krishna’s simple words lift us once again to the most sublime of heights, summing up one of the very finest tributes ever penned to all that is good, true and beautiful in ourselves and the universe we are privileged to inhabit.


71)         And the man who may merely happen to hear, endowed with faith, and uncarping—even he, liberated, shall attain to the good worlds of those who perform meritorious deeds.


         Even if you just hear about truth it can be helpful, because wisdom has a way of being tumbled around in the unconscious until it becomes very convincing. After digesting what was heard for a time, it often reemerges as if it were thought of by the hearer.

         Very often a guru’s teaching will make only a little sense at first. And receiving it with a closed mind guarantees it will never make better sense—it will either be exaggerated in lurid ways or forgotten. But if you believe your teacher is wise, you will listen attentively even without fully understanding. You are being invited in to a new world of possibilities, and you don’t yet have a framework to fit it in. This is as it should be. Save the framing for later, and just let the wisdom pour in. With the magic of the mind, the words will go deep inside, where they will be sifted through and mulled over until they do begin to make sense, and then they begin to reemerge in consciousness as insights and intuitions. Guru Nitya described this process during the class that became the book That Alone: The Core of Wisdom:


There is no need to learn each verse and then rationally apply it in everyday life. You can even hear it and forget it. Forgetting means it only goes deeper into you. Once you have heard it, it will go and work its way by itself. The effect will be very subtle. It comes almost without you knowing that it is something which you heard that is enabling you to see things in a new light or make resolutions in a certain more helpful way. (448-9)


         Scoffing is a big part of the modern malaise. There is so much garbage everywhere that intelligent people have gotten in the habit of deriding pretty much everything outside their comfort zone. Often they have a point, but if it becomes a fixed state of mind, nothing new and enlightening will ever get past the gates. That’s more than a shame, it’s the termination of their evolution. There has to be a valid and flexible core to the psyche, otherwise making fun of everything is like whittling away at a stick until nothing is left.

         Carping is more often called quibbling or nitpicking nowadays, and it is an important way the ego deflects a guru’s criticism, valid or not. In his comments Nataraja Guru says of non-carping that:


It refers to the minimum requirement for the establishment of healthy relations between Guru and sishya so that deeper secrets of wisdom can be discussed in the form of a dialogue. There must be a certain rapport or understanding in the form of a subtle spiritual contract in which the two persons involved adopt each other, which is free from carping, caviling or nagging, or other marks of spiritual disadoption.


The same term was translated as “without mistrust,” in IX, 1, where it was shown to be the key factor that prompted Krishna to impart his wisdom to Arjuna.

         Derisiveness, scorn, snobbishness, quibbling and so on are actually defense mechanisms of the secretly terrified adult child wandering lost through an apparently hostile world. A conscious corrective must be applied before benign input can get through the blockade; otherwise there is no point in a teacher wasting their time trying to break through.

         The whole process of wisdom sacrifice, contemplation, and the personalizing of the teaching is a very long process. There is little instant gratification unless you have already done a lot of preliminary work. This is not the “three minute manager,” it is more like the thirty year manager. And what’s the rush? The objective is in the present, not the future. There is no postponement of joy until some distant goal is reached, it is at hand right here and now. If you have found an excellent guru, every utterance is a melody of pure bliss. Even if you are simply studying some profound book like the Gita, every sentence—every word—is a doorway to open your mind to further insights. Any bit of true knowledge taken to heart produces an evolutionary advance.

         Notice that attaining “the good worlds of those who perform meritorious deeds” is the highest outcome for those who merely listen, without interacting with a guru. This is a lesser achievement than the total union with the Absolute of full-fledged yoga, but not bad. Krishna puts doing good deeds and listening to the wise on a par. They are okay as far as they go, but they are essentially linear. Wholehearted wrestling with the issues in a dynamic dialectic dialogue with another thinking person enables the leap into immortality.

         Once again, we don’t have to read the last phrase as referring to any afterlife. Performing meritorious deeds usually brings us into a good relation with our neighbors, making life more worth living. This is elementary logic. Just as the Bible discredits the “laying up of treasures,” in the Gita the expectation of a future reward of any kind is unnecessary and even irrelevant.


72)         Has it been heard by you, Arjuna, with one-pointed mind? O Winner of Wealth, has your delusion of ignorance been destroyed?


         There is a parallel here with Jesus’ phrase “He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.” Krishna uses the verb ‘to hear’ in the sense of not only registering the words but thoroughly understanding them, including their symbolic inferences. A one-pointed mind is completely concentrated on the subject, with the mind not allowed to wander. When this happens in the bipolar rapport between guru and disciple, information flows back and forth with the speed of light as its lower limit.

         Then Krishna asks if Arjuna’s ignorance is gone. Arjuna has to know he understands. It would be perilous for him to go off half-cocked, with an incomplete grasp of the teachings, leading to an inadequate connection with his inner core. Truth has to be like a berry in the palm of one’s hand. If you “sort of” understand, it’s a different matter entirely. When ignorance is swept away by the Word of the Guru, it is the most intense experience humans are capable of, infusing the entire life with an electrifying sizzle. There is no mistaking it.

         This is another moment to read between the lines a bit. As a guru intimately connected with Arjuna’s spiritual unfoldment, Krishna doesn’t really need to ask this question, and Arjuna doesn’t have to give an audible answer: his whole being speaks for itself. But how is the reader to know? We have to be told. Vyasa once again handles a delicate literary dilemma with poetic artistry. Beyond that, the author is also asking us if we have heard the message and if it has opened our minds. For the average reader, it has not, though much has been gained. A lot of dedicated effort remains to drive ignorance out of our lives.


73)         Arjuna said:

         Gone is my delusion, and Self-recognition has been gained by me through Your grace. I am properly established, with doubts gone; I shall carry out Your word.


         Arjuna has but one last line to assert the efficacy of Krishna’s teaching. In no uncertain terms he avers that all his confusion has been swept away, leaving him “properly established.” Being properly established is what Nataraja Guru means by normalization: that we no longer twist situations to fit our personal program but take them for what they truly are. The spiritual search is a process of removing the impediments that oppress our psyche and that compel us to see and act in abnormal ways, leaving us free to respond exactly as each situation requires.

         Interestingly there is a parallel between this and Arjuna’s statement at the beginning of Chapter XI, which closely follows the other verse directing him to become one, etc., with the Absolute. There also he asserted his confusion had vanished. What has happened in between to make this repetition necessary? The earlier instance was theoretical. Arjuna had reached a level of deep understanding intellectually. But right after that he had his experiential vision, and what had been theoretical suddenly became hair-raisingly actual. Ever since he has been struggling to integrate theory with practice. The additional indications here, that he is now properly established and ready to act in accordance with Krishna’s teachings, mean that this integration has at last been achieved.

         Plenty of room for confusion still remains in these ancient words from an exotic language. Arjuna sounds like he’s just going to be an unwitting instrument of Krishna: “I will do your bidding.” But Krishna’s word that he will carry out is to scrutinize everything, abandon duties and obligations, and do as he sees fit. Doing so aligns him with the mystic flow of the universe, which following orders never achieves. Krishna as the Absolute wants him to be independent and free, because the Divine has better things to do than operate a galaxy full of puppets. And it’s hard to forget that so many religious types do vast harm in the name of carrying out what they believe their god has asked them to do. There is something seriously wrong with that attitude, and Krishna has shown over and over that he knows it.

         “I shall carry out Your word” thus carries the sense of the Word or Original Impetus being actualized in Arjuna. The blast flows on forever, perfect and eternal, and at each moment we are called to bring it into manifestation as a spark of the endless exuberance of life. The stream or pulsation of consciousness is brought into being as the Word of the Absolute, but we foolish mortals embody it and give it shape. Shakespeare has put this better than I, or for that matter, anyone:


And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name. (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, V.1)


There is no mandatory compulsion in this process; only harmonious laws of the local universe that we actualize in an endless creative cascade.

         Nowhere does Krishna say that Arjuna has reached the end of knowledge, and no additions are possible for the remainder of human history. Sadly, humans often interpret their scriptures that way, to their undying shame, or very often their killing shame. But “carrying out the Word” is an ongoing unfoldment of delight, dynamic and illimitable. The Word bubbles up within each person; it is not written on any monolithic stone tablet. The Gita is fully open-ended, welcoming the discovery of every new possibility. Arjuna is not finished; he is on the threshold of a true beginning.


74)         Sanjaya said:

         Thus have I heard this wonderful dialogue between Krishna and the high-souled Arjuna, causing my hair to stand on end.


         The narrator makes one final appearance, to bring the Gita to a close with dignity and return us to the context of the encompassing Mahabharata epic, which is about to be taken up again.

         Those were certainly hair-raising times. Arjuna’s hair likewise stands on end in I, 29 and XI, 14. Here it emphasizes how deeply moving the union of guru and disciple, or Absolute and artist, is. We onlookers are like choiring angels at the celebration, witnesses to a moment of the highest spiritual transformation.


75)         By the grace of Vyasa I heard this supreme and most secret yoga, spoken by Krishna Himself, the Lord of Yoga, as immediately given to my senses.


         Here we have a tip of the hat by the author, anonymous though he is, or it may just be that an appreciative reader added the accolade later on. Sanjaya, himself a creation of Vyasa, asserts that his writing of the Gita brought it to life, made it absolutely vivid. I cannot recall any other scripture that was honest enough to say that it was a teaching story invented by its author.

         The cachet of divine dispensation is one way to guarantee that a teaching will outlast the period in which it is written. If this is the only reason the Gita has come down to us we can all be grateful, but there is no need on our part to think of this fabulously brilliant work as emerging from anywhere other than a human mind. If God dispenses, it is through creation that the dispensation flowers into expression. An enlightened genius like this Vyasa has realized the goal of Yoga, which is to align himself perfectly with the divine impetus. Thus the Gita itself is a perfect example of what it teaches.

         The Vyasas of the world inspire us to achieve greatness. Most of us at our very best only begin to approach the ability of a mastermind like Vyasa, but at any rate we are encouraged to strive to attain our highest capability instead of wallowing in mediocrity. The bright lights of the human race beckon us to follow them into the empyrean. There is nothing otherworldly in this.

         It is indeed very likely that the author did hear something along the lines of this dialogue, as he must have been initiated in wisdom by a guru of his own. Teaching this profound cannot spring purely from the imagination. It undoubtedly has some basis in fact. As all books are said to be veiled autobiographies, so too is this scripture.

         This is the last reference to the teaching being secret. We have already explained how and why it is secret. As Vyasa fades the scene into a memory image, we can picture him in our minds as receiving his long course of instruction in a secluded forest hermitage, and afterwards gathering the many separate strands of wisdom into a coherent whole. Inspired to the very fingertips, he must have burned to share this great wisdom with everyone who showed the requisite interest. In a state of ecstasy he recorded these immortal verses, to broadcast the secret far and wide. But whenever he told his story to others, he could see that they only understood a small measure of it. Even when made plain as day, the meaning remained hidden to those who were not ready to grasp the subtleties he was relating. The open secret is just as hard to penetrate today as it was when it was first set down.


76)         O King, as I remember and remember this marvelous and sacred dialogue between Krishna and Arjuna, I rejoice over and over again.


         The narrator exemplifies ordinary consciousness by describing his rejoicing, in this and the next verse. The word used, hrishya, is the same as that in XII, 17, where we were specifically instructed to not rejoice. Yet now we have retouched the earth, a little celebration is not out of order….


77)         As I remember and remember that most marvelous form of Hari, great is my astonishment, O King, and I rejoice over and over again.


         Sanjaya the narrator now closes the tale with the spine-tingling admission that when he remembers “that most marvelous form of Hari,” (Krishna) he rejoices over and over. Unexamined, this could be construed as bald-faced Krishna worship, but remember that the most marvelous form he is recalling is from Chapter XI, where Krishna revealed his true form as the Absolute. There was no personification of any god in that chapter. In fact, Arjuna even begged Krishna to show him his familiar form as a god, and Krishna ignored him. What did take place was a purely transcendental experience, meaning it left all definable forms behind. So Sanjaya, or at any rate Vyasa, is not preaching religion, as it appears on the surface, he is harking back to that transcendent, indefinable moment that is the hub for all the Gita’s philosophy to revolve around. Only the unmediated Absolute brings truly eternal joy, while all particular gods are necessarily partial, falling within the scope of the gunas, and of conceptualization. Krishna and the rest thus only attain their full stature when equated with the Absolute, and not as distinguishable agents of it.

         A very special verse is required to conclude such an amazing work as this, like the final chord of a masterful Symphony echoing on into eternal silence, and Vyasa knew how to sing it:


78)         Where there is Krishna, the Lord of Yoga, where there is Arjuna, the archer, there will be prosperity, victory, progress, and well-established justice: such is my belief.


         The reciprocally dynamic Guru-disciple relationship is the most conducive to spiritual life and all its attendant blessings, according to the philosophy of the Upanishads.

         By referring to the archer, the implication is that Arjuna has at last picked up his bow—symbolic of his dharma—that he dropped back in the first chapter. An archer aims with great care and expertise at a target. This means Arjuna is fully cured of his confusion and is restored to his destiny, whatever it might turn out to be. He now knows what his purpose in life is, and how to go about achieving it, though the actual course he will take is unknown, as always. Not only that, but he will be a conscious actor from now on, as opposed to being a hapless pawn in someone else’s game. This is the spiritual goal the Upanishads and the Gita hold out to us.

         There is a well-known Zen saying, “Before Enlightenment chop wood and carry water, after Enlightenment, chop wood and carry water.” Arjuna is now established in the second half of the pronouncement. He will now return to his daily life, but with a totally new mental orientation. What happened in between the before and after states is the great transformation the Gita has set forth in breathtaking detail.

         The Gita is a clarion call to greatness, a return to the infinite potency within each of us, a greatness that springs up naturally once we free ourselves from our debilitating beliefs and reestablish a bipolar relationship with the Absolute. The world needs each of us to participate fully and with expertise as never before. So, knowing what you now know, scrutinize everything, and then do as you think best. And no matter what, have fun out there! 

Scott Teitsworth