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.
Nitya frames the subject matter succinctly in Therapy and Realization in the Bhagavad Gita:
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.
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.
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.
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.
desire to know, O Krishna, the truth of renunciation as also of relinquishment,
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
should be given up as an evil, declare some rationalists; others say that acts
of sacrifice, giving and austerity should not be abandoned.
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)
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
the renunciation of necessary inevitable action does not arise; the
renunciation of such through delusion is said to be tamasic.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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,
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
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.
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.
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
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.”
who relinquishes action from fear of bodily trouble, considering it painful,
thus willfully (rajasically) relinquishing, does not get the (legitimate)
benefit of relinquishment.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
necessary action is done, Arjuna, recognizing its imperative character,
relinquishing attachment and benefit, such relinquishment is considered
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.
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.
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)
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.
relinquisher pervaded with purity, of strong intelligence, and of sundered
doubts, hates not unpleasant action, nor is he attached to pleasant ones.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
indeed is it possible for an embodied one to completely relinquish action; he
who relinquishes the benefit of action is verily called a relinquisher.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
unpleasant and mixed benefits accrue in the spiritual progress beyond of a
non-relinquisher, but none anywhere to renouncers.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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
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)
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
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.
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
The basis and
actor, and also the various mental instruments, the several and varied
movements, and fifth, the divine factor;
action a man undertakes by the body, speech and mind, justifiable or the
opposite—these five are its causes.
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
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
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
limits of selfish action were explored in detail in Chapter XVI. See also the verse
17 commentary below.
who is free from ego-sense, whose intelligence is unaffected, though he kills
these people, he neither kills nor is bound.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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
by which the unexpended Being is seen in all beings, undivided in the
divided—know that knowledge to be sattvic.
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
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.
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.
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
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
art the essence of the spirit in men and women,
When men and women become one, Thou art that One;
the units are wiped out, lo, Thou art That Unity.
Thou didst contrive this ‘I’ and ‘We’ in order to play the
of worship with Thyself.
That all ‘I’s and thou’s might become one soul and at last be
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.
knowledge which sees a multiplicity of beings as distinct in the different
kinds, because of separateness—know that knowledge to be 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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
action which is obligatory, performed without attachment, without affection or
disregard, by one not benefit-motivated—that is called sattvic.
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.
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.”
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
that action done with great strain, by one desire-prompted, or possessed of
egoism, is called rajasic.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
action undertaken from confusion (of values), disregarding consequences, loss
or injury, and human limitations—that is called 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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
last three verses dealt with action; now we examine the actor who performs the
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
Some days later the horse returned, bringing with it
beautiful wild mares. Again the village people gathered, and they said, “Old
man you were right! The horse was not stolen, and it was not a misfortune. It
was a blessing, and now you have many fine horses!” But the old man replied,
“Again you go too far. Don’t say it’s a good thing, don’t say it’s a bad thing.
Just say the horse is back. Whether it is a blessing or a misfortune is
Some days later the old man’s only son began to
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
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.”
actor, passionate, prompted by desire for benefits, greedy, violent-natured,
maladjusted, with moods of exaltation and depression, is called rajasic.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
actor who is a misfit, crude, stubborn, deceitful, malicious, lazy, despondent
and procrastinating, is called tamasic.
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.
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.
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)
his Yoga Shastra commentary, Nitya paraphrases the Buddha on the use of
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)
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
reason which takes right and wrong, the permissible and the banned, in a sense
incompatible with reality—that O Arjuna, is rajasic.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
reason enveloped in darkness, which regards wrong as right, and sees all values
pervertedly, O Arjuna, is tamasic.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
firmness by which the activities of mind, vital functions, and the senses are
kept from deflecting (from the true path) by yoga, is sattvic.
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)
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
“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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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)
characteristic of firmness is that it is an outgrowth of our thirst for
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.”
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
by which a stupid man does not give up sleep, fear, grief, despondency and
wantonness—that firmness is 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
is no entity either on earth or in heaven, among the Vedic divinities, that
could be free from these three modalities born from nature.
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
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!
brahmins, ksatriyas, vaisyas and sudras, O Arjuna, vocations are
separately distributed in conformity with the modalities arising from their own
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Chaitanya Yati relates an important meeting about caste between Mahatma Gandhi
and Narayana Guru, in his autobiography Love
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
each to his own occupation, man reaches perfection (in practical yoga); how,
devoted to his own occupation he attains such perfection—that do hear.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
becoming independent in order to be optimally beneficial to both yourself and
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.”
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
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
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
As an ordinary Hindu worshipper would offer a flower
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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’.
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.
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.
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.
naturally inborn in one, though accompanied by defects, ought not to be
abandoned; all undertakings are enveloped by defects, as fire by smoke.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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,
solitude, frugal in diet, controlling speech, body, and mind, ever in
meditative contemplation, resorting to dispassion,
egoism, power, arrogance, desire, anger, and possessiveness, free from
ownership, and tranquil—he is worthy of becoming the Absolute.
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….
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
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
Reason - has not only its own
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
most exhaustively treated in this very chapter, verses 33-35. Also XVI, 3.
– III, 19; V, 12; XIII, 8; and XVIII, 6-9.
likes and dislikes – V, 22. Equalization is the essence of yoga and is
found throughout the work.
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.
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
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
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 –
Chapter VI, especially the introduction.
to dispassion – III, 19; IV, 37; VI, 35.
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;
– 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.
– 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
– Many places, including II, 10, 47, 55, 56, 62; III, 41; V, 3; XVI, 10;
– III, 37; XVI, 4, 12;
– IV, 21;
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.
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.
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.
– Better known as shanti, peace.
Obviously, not something to be relinquished! IV, 39; V, 29; XII, 12, 15.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
still continuing to do all actions in life, treating Me as his refuge, by My
grace he obtains the everlasting undiminishing status.
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.
renouncing all actions into Me, regarding Me as the Supreme, resorting to
unitive understanding, having Me wholly filling your relational consciousness,
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
resorting to egoism, you think, “I will not fight,” absurd is this, your
resolution. Nature will compel you.
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.
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
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.
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….
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
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.
Gita calls us to take the oars and wade right out into the current. We are in
for quite an exciting ride!
which, through confusion, you do not like to do—you shall do that very thing,
helplessly, bound by your own nature-born action.
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:
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.
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.
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.
the Gita’s—advice is to bring critical thinking to bear, and deliberately
disrupt our mental models, called samskaras in Sanskrit.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
“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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
refuge in Him alone in all ways, Arjuna; by His grace you shall obtain the
peaceful abode, supreme, everlasting.
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.
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.
“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.
has wisdom more secret than all that is secret been declared to you by Me;
critically scrutinizing all, omitting nothing, do as you like.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.”
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
all duties, come to Me, the One, for refuge; I shall absolve you from all sins;
do not despair.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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
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.
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
“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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.”
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
who gives this supreme secret to My devotee, thereby doing for Me supreme
devotion, shall doubtless come to Me.
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
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
it been heard by you, Arjuna, with one-pointed mind? O Winner of Wealth, has
your delusion of ignorance been destroyed?
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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:
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,
There is no mandatory compulsion in this process; only
harmonious laws of the local universe that we actualize in an endless creative
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.
have I heard this wonderful dialogue between Krishna and the high-souled
Arjuna, causing my hair to stand on end.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
King, as I remember and remember this marvelous and sacred dialogue between
Krishna and Arjuna, I rejoice over and over again.
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….
I remember and remember that most marvelous form of Hari, great is my
astonishment, O King, and I rejoice over and over again.
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.
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:
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
reciprocally dynamic Guru-disciple relationship is the most conducive to
spiritual life and all its attendant blessings, according to the philosophy of
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.
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.
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!