Sampad Vibhaga Yoga
XVI begins with a list of so-called divine qualities, followed by demonic
qualities. Krishna explains quite clearly that there is no mythological
significance to these terms, only that the former conduce to emancipation
(freedom) and the latter to further entanglement in chains of cause and effect,
described as bondage to necessity. Any confusion around whether the Gita advocates
war can be dispelled by a glance at this section. Most certainly not! Bellicose
attitudes are at the core of demonic thinking.
Krishna never suffers fools gladly, a ferocious tone that is more intense than
anywhere else in the Gita builds throughout this chapter. This may be partly a
response to Arjuna’s differentiation of perfected ones and demons back in XI,
36, and in that light sounds a note of caution. As concretely manifested states
are progressively built up on abstract concepts, any minor anomaly in
consciousness becomes powerfully magnified. Because of this, the slightest
speck of dirt in the potion while it is being brewed can ruin the whole batch. In
other words, we will come to see what we expect, more or less, even if the
expectations are initially very subtle. The selfish, “diabolic” attitudes that
Krishna lambastes are actually very reasonable to most people, and are often
mistaken for common sense. We are given a powerful warning here to never
succumb to the lure of self-interest in opposition to universal beneficence,
not even in our supposedly private thoughts.
is nothing old-fashioned or obsolete about Krishna’s rant. At present the
political and economic realms are deeply polluted by the very attitudes Krishna
excoriates, and longstanding edifices of civilization are collapsing in
consequence. Widespread disinformation occludes the causes, but the effects at
least are visible to everyone. A clearly stated and cogent scheme of
understanding can go a long way toward resolving the conflicts and mitigating
the suffering that is a direct result of unenlightened self-interest.
always, the most valuable aspect of the teaching is what we can personally put
into practice in our own lives. We should not read this or any teaching as if
it only applied to other people and not to us. Our own psyche is the neglected
garden in which spiritual values are to be cultivated. Nitya Chaitanya Yati, in
his Therapy and Realization in the
Bhagavad Gita, keeps the focus solely on the individual, and has this to
say under the heading The Ambivalence Between the Bright and the Dark:
sixteenth chapter, “The Unitive Way of Discriminating Between Higher and Lower
Values,” gives a new way for self analysis. Even the best of men, who is calm,
serene, peaceful and loving, has moments when he is dull, and also when he can
become harsh and negative. That is the ambivalence in our life, which swings
from the darkest extreme to the brightest extreme and goes on swinging. The
rhythm of the swinging can be different for different people, but it is
certainly present in all. In some people there is the tendency to go to the
bright side and remain there for a long time, along with the tendency to go
just a little to the dark side and then immediately leave it. Your personality
type can be discerned when you see how long you can remain on the bright side
and to what intensity of brightness it can attain. Similarly, knowing how you
sink into the dark, and how you are caught in the trap of that darkness, and
how intense that darkness is helps you to discern your personality type. This
dark nature is called asuri sampatti,
and the bright nature is called the daivi
sampatti. If the daivi sampatti
is stronger in you, you come more and more into the open brightness of life and
you keep yourself more or less in that area. If the dark side is operating too
much in you, then you like to hide away from anything which helps you to open
up, and you become very withdrawn, or it can be expressed as a very negative
indulgence in violence. The asuri
sampatti and daivi sampatti are
the two alternate faces we have, and each person has to find out how much of
them is in him or her. And our spirituality has to be so modeled that we can
regulate these two principles.
now a student of the Gita should have overcome the normal human tendency to try
to pass themselves off as all good, and accepted the inevitable presence of
their shadow aspect. Only after this is recognized does balancing the psyche
transparency to truth, proper affiliation to unitive wisdom, attitude of
generous sharing, self-restraint, sacrifice, private perusal of sacred books,
first three verses present the Gita’s inimitable version of righteousness or
right activity. No one can act with pure unitive freedom all the time, and when
artistic inspiration wavers it’s good to have enlightened concepts to fall back
contradistinction to fatalistic science with its genetic imperatives, currently
directing a lot of energy into proving there is no such thing as free will, all
the items on the Gita’s list require effort to actualize. None of them are
“natural” states of mind; they are highly evolved products of dedication and
intention. Conversely, the unrighteous states listed in the fourth verse are
also the result of diligent effort, and these are the ones most fostered by a
competitive, heartless social milieu. The vision of the wise seers of all ages
and all places is of a united humanity in which the positive virtues are
cultivated and nurtured and the negative ones weeded out or at the least
minimized. Swimming against the entropic tide to produce a garden of delights
gives meaning to life.
is substantial overlap between the Gita’s long list of “divine” qualities and
the ten yamas and niyamas (restraints and observances) that form two of the
eight limbs of Patanjali’s Yoga system. Each item is worthy of separate study,
and a number of them will be taken up in more detail in the Gita’s final two
chapters. A contemplative worthy of the name is expected to put these
principles into actual practice, instead of merely reading about them.
you open yourself up to the wave, or the Divine, or your intuition, however you
prefer to conceive of the greater reality, it has to be an absolute, total and
neutral gesture. If not, you are vulnerable to many subverting forces: the
winds of public opinion, current fads and obsessions, mob psychology, religious
fervor, and all types of conventionalism. The contemplative must always be on
guard to go beyond such limiting parameters, to offer allegiance as regularly
as possible to an all-inclusive principle.
approaches generate what is popularly called karma, i.e. repercussions and
entanglements, many of them quite serious.
All decent scriptures are remarkably similar in their moral
framing, emerging as they do from a reciprocal understanding akin to the Golden
Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Even physical science
has a version of it: “For every action there is an equal and opposite
reaction.” It means that what happens to us is significantly shaped by what we
do—we are not simply victims of outrageous fortune.
are plenty of people who sincerely believe they are doing the will of God, yet
who are causing pain and suffering and even death in their vicinity. We don’t
have to look any farther than the partisans of the Biblical “Thou shalt not
kill,” and “Love your enemies,” who are slaughtering or despising their
purported foes in bounteous measure, to observe the human potential for
rationalizing everything. To guard against sliding down slippery slopes into
such tempting traps, scriptures offer clear guidelines for proper moral
behavior. If your inner God is telling you to kill or to perpetrate some other
violation, it is in fact the deranged voice in your head speaking and not any
actual deity, so turn it off and wake up!
reading through a list of qualities such as we find here is nearly meaningless;
it requires reflection to illuminate the importance of each item. Infusing
meaning into everything encountered is a primary benefit of contemplation. The
Gita almost always presents its lists in a graded sequence, usually most
important first to least important last, so if you look closely at the first item
it often implies the others in some way. Now let’s look at each of the “divine”
Abhayam, fearlessness, is critically
important in spiritual life. Fear deflects us from the straightforward attitude
that strives to always see things as they are, causing us to superimpose all
manner of projections and expectations onto our surroundings.
Upanishads teach that fear comes from the perception of an other. Where there
is no other, there is no fear. Fearlessness does not depend on having an
opponent, and so is not grounded in a defensive posture the way courage or
ferocity are. It is a balanced state that is a natural outgrowth of knowing the
unity of the Absolute. When that is realized, all fears are dispersed. In a
sense, then, fearlessness is the supreme achievement, the first benefit of
knowing the state of oneness directly. Like any good disciple, Arjuna was aware
of and troubled by his fears in the beginning. Krishna immediately addressed
them early in Chapter II. The transformation he advocates throughout the Gita
is intended to bring everything seemingly ‘other’ into a unified definition of
Nitya reminds us of the importance of our attitude in this matter:
This world can indeed be
threatening. It can be dark, frightful and depressing. If your mind is already
tainted with the dark colors of fear, since it is through that very mind you
look at the world, this world will also look very frightening. But if your mind
is free of such taint, then you see it as a fresh garland of newly picked
flowers, very beautifully strung together. Thus in its structure, function and
value this becomes a world of great endearment, full of truth that can be
adored as vast wisdom. (That Alone, 151)
are many reasons we become fearful, and what a powerful motivator it is! We
have already touched on the usual suspects, such as the early childhood shocks engendered
by popular beliefs that beating and terrorizing children is “for their own
good,” to keep them “safe,” so they will be “normal,” that we are born little
sinners who need to be smacked into shape or else we’ll go to hell, etc. Such
ideas thinly mask aggression towards innocence. And there are plenty of
accidental traumas and tragedies to compound the damage. Eventually we become
hard wired to reject pain. Fear directs us to avoid perceived painful
situations in advance, and since the world is full of pain, fear is constantly
directing our footsteps and shriveling their ambit. The Gita wants us to be
free, and if we are all the time avoiding pain (along with its flip side,
seeking superficial pleasure) we are not really free. It may well be that right
behind (or inside) that pain is where our next lesson lies, but we'll never
confront it if our only parameter is to be as far away from discomfort as
is thus of preeminent importance and contains elements of several of the other
qualities in it. Fearlessness paves the way for the next value in the list, transparency
to truth, because a lot of why we block the benign radiance of the universe
comes from our fear that it will prove harmful to us. After we become assured
that the beneficence of the Absolute includes everyone and everything, we can
be confident enough to allow it to be a part of us (or vice versa). To quote
Nitya yet again, “When the transparency of the mind is not affected by any kind
of emotional crisis, intellectual conflict, or psychotic or other pathological
affectation, it gives a spontaneous expression of its own truthful nature.”
seems there is a very deep level in us that is prone to being terrified. In
general terms, we are afraid of cessation of existence, death, voidness. If we
live in terror of ceasing to exist, then everything we do is literally done as
a barricade against our termination. We frantically stay as busy as possible,
or distract ourselves with whatever can hold our attention, simply to suppress
the uncomfortable awareness of the void. This makes even contemplation itself
appear inimical to our interests, instead of our best attitude and finest
we say that fear is the great motivator, it means that nothingness produces
fear to motivate us to try to exist, as if without it we wouldn’t. We have a
hard time accepting that we already exist, because our existence is so
intangible. This fear-based existence contrasts with the benign image of the
Absolute that the Gita speaks of. Yet when Arjuna ACTUALLY encounters the absolute
ground of all, in Chapter XI, it does scare the living daylights out of him,
and he begs for the restoration of familiar imagery to absolve him of the
the poor Absolute, which puts everything it has—which is Nothing with a capital
N—into convincing us that we are eternal and this game is for our enjoyment and
edification. Yet its very nature terrifies us, because to embrace it is to
appear to disappear as a separate being. That's about the ultimate paradox.
who seek freedom should be courageous enough to examine their fears. A key one
is the cessation of the flow of money, which is a symbol of sustenance. This
must be almost the most primal fear—after ceasing to exist—first appearing with
our banishment from the Eden of the womb and the severing of the umbilicus at
birth. While civilization has ameliorated this fear to some extent with its
supportive structures, it remains at least theoretically uncertain where our
sustenance comes from and whether we'll continue to receive it in the future.
The Gita's recommendation is to realize our unity with the Absolute, in which
all things are sustained. Not only sustained, but created, sustained,
destroyed, and eventually recycled.
Guru reminds us, in verse 66 of his One
Hundred Verses of Self-Instruction, that
everyone is receiving sustenance all the time. By reminding us how every
creature finds its needs met every day, we are led to sense the invisible
beneficence that is a mark of the Absolute. Traditional sannyasa or
renunciation is the process by which a truth seeker throws themself into the
arms of the Unknown, trusting totally in its care. Most of us are afraid to
even imagine such a path; it requires true fearlessness. But the alternative is
to be eternally in a state of trepidation, which is the background anxiety of
losing our sustenance. Oddly, no amount of material wealth can quell this fear,
since at heart the problem is spiritual, not material. Death cannot yet be
staved off by opulence, though some scientists are currently working on making
it possible for the super wealthy.
people also fear being considered different, i.e. weird or “not normal.” How
much energy we expend in proving to others that we're not really the person we
know ourselves to be, with all our faults: we're really that mythical beast
called a normal human being! Truly astonishing, especially considering it's
easy to demonstrate that it's a wholly imaginary thing we're afraid of. There
is no such thing as normal: no two people would describe normal the same way,
and no one could be found who actually matches the description. Our
“ordinariness” is almost embarrassingly extraordinary. But we have a genetic
inheritance that equates invisibility with safety, so we suppress anything
about us that is likely to stand out. Plus, we are convinced early in life that
we must warp ourselves to match an implicit standard residing somewhere else
that is only partially spelled out. Sometimes self-appointed guardians of
normalcy administer a threat or a beating to reinforce the trap even more strenuously.
Who cares that we have no idea why we are being threatened or abused; we'll
either go along or suffer the consequences. Sooner or later we construct a
tepid “cardboard cutout” version of ourselves and prop it up in plain sight, to
keep our persecutors diverted away from our tender innards.
adults one of our primary tasks is to grow up out of this childhood nightmare.
The sad fact is that camouflaging ourselves usually becomes so deeply ingrained
that we forget we are striving to live up to capricious and arbitrary norms.
Not only ill-considered, but harshly destructive norms often enough. These are
some of the poisoned arrows that Arjuna is warding off in the midst of the
battle. When we find them we should pull them out as quickly as we can, before
the poison seeps into our system. It may well be that the so-called normal
person is one who has learned to love the arrows protruding from their tender
skin, who has become acculturated to cherish the poison. In that case, you
should become abnormal as fast as you can!
two preceding examples include a very real fear (sustenance) and a very unreal
fear (abnormality). It would be hard to say which was the stronger motivator.
It doesn't seem to matter how much of a fear is real: it’s a chemical reaction
that can be set off by all sorts of triggers. Still, fear really matters, even
though much of it isn't real. A mere whiff of actual content can produce
titanic fear. There are whole countries that have been driven to madness over
false warnings of invasion or terrorist attacks. Are we being deluded by our
own ignorance, then? The rishis of ancient days certainly thought so.
all our fears the prescription is to minimize the imaginary part and focus on
the real content. This makes them less painful, and makes it much easier to choose
a preferable response. Yet in the final analysis, it is unhelpful to fear even
real threats, as this undercuts our ability to respond to the challenge.
should also be admitted that fear can have a positive as well as a negative
motivational impact. Take the common fear of growing senile and losing our
memory and sense of self and becoming helplessly dependent on faceless
caretakers. Such a feeling may motivate us to avoid aluminum cans and cookware
and otherwise take care of what enters our bodies, and it is quite possible
that such behavior would be beneficial for us. We might reach out to family
members and learn to trust them more, against the day when we might need their
help. Or we might help fund research or even perform some ourself on the causes
of mental degeneration. There are many positive responses to fear, but they are
still responses to fear, just better ones.
I’m splitting hairs, but I'd call this last type a worry rather than a fear. A
worry is primarily conscious while a fear is mostly unconscious, and therein
lies a big difference. A fear drives us as a leaf before the wild hurricane,
while a worry should motivate us to ponder and make intelligent changes in our
actions. (The niggling misery of obsessing about future possibilities is often
called worrying, but it is evidence of a deeper, unaddressed fear.) Burning in
hell is a primal fear, and it also is based on imaginary future possibilities
even more remote than senility. It’s an interesting amalgam of something deep
in our psyche that is activated by tall tales. By my tentative definition,
then, it's both a worry and a fear. It may be that when a repeated worry goes
deep enough over time to become an unconscious motivator, it turns into a fear.
Or when fears spill over into conscious awareness they instigate worrying.
through a dangerous area, for instance a snake infested jungle, the conscious
worry is indistinguishable from fear. It's abstract and real at once.
Undoubtedly we are more prepared to meet contingencies if our fear heightens
our awareness of the environment. At any rate, fear is a tough nut to crack. We
can imagine that Krishna and Arjuna spent a long time pondering it, but Vyasa
was a busy fellow and so he just summed it all up in one word, fearlessness. We
should follow their example and dive deeply into the meaning of each of the
words in this long list of beneficial qualities.
fears has ever been a fundamental spiritual and psychotherapeutic technique. When
you experience a fear it's an indication of where to work on yourself. In this
sense all fears (or worries) are beneficial as long as they're being addressed.
It's when we suppress them and ignore them that they wreak havoc. Part of their
bag of tricks, however, is that they make us want to avoid them. So you have to
already be somewhat fearless to even take on your fears.
the other hand, psychopaths are utterly fearless, because they are
constitutionally unable to register the emotions that we read as fear. They
demonstrate beyond any doubt that fear has a positive contribution to make to
our wholeness. It is an important way our highly intelligent unconscious gets
the attention of our often-preoccupied conscious mind.
then, does not require eradicating all fears, but merely having a confident
attitude toward them so we can distinguish between real and unreal fears. Some
fears play a valuable role, but we need to bring them into conscious awareness,
so we only respond to the valid ones. By breaking the hold unconscious fears
have on us, we come to a state of heightened clarity, which is about to be
called transparency to truth.
relatively easy to subtract our imaginary fears from the picture once we start
looking. Fear of the actual crocodile slithering toward us is a different
matter. One should be dismissed and the other acted upon. This is a matter for
our discrimination. There are relatively few crocodiles and lots of old shoes.
Few terrorists and lots of bomb threats. So life will be much more enjoyable if
we stick to the real fears and shrug off the rest.
can't be denied is that some measure of fearlessness is a desirable state. Not
the crazed fearlessness of a warrior pumped up on adrenaline, but the
fearlessness caused by the vital energy of the Absolute flowing through your
veins, producing the confidence of participation in the eternal, if only for a
all this churning about the nature of fear, now we have to wonder what in the
world fearlessness can be. Where could it possibly come from? It's a mystery
all right. But selected folk who've stood out through the ages have somehow
discovered an inner connection to overcome their fear of death. We may not know
what or where it is, but Krishna must be right that fearlessness is the most
important of all beneficial qualities, one that frees us profoundly from being
driven to act wrongly, and if properly refined would finally permit us to act
samshuddih, transparency to truth, is another critical virtue that is
difficult to achieve. Usually translated as purity of mind or temperament,
Nataraja Guru’s version really captures the sense of it. Truth is not something
that is created out of nothing. It is discovered. Truth is all around us in the
very existence of everything, but our preoccupations make us opaque, unable to
tune in to it. We have to strip away our everyday opacity to reacquaint
ourselves with the sea of truth we swim in.
are blinded by more than our fears: we also have habits and misunderstandings
that hamper our ability to discern reality. These will play a central role in
the demonic attitudes soon to be discussed, because the more we cling to them
the more our actions are forced into negative channels. To be open to
unfettered behavior we have to find a way to let our conditioned urges surge
through us without finding anything to latch on to. If we can let them pass,
better options will become available to us.
cure for this malaise is to question and examine the comments that catch our attention,
while letting those that don’t pass through us like neutrinos, particles that
almost never interact with matter. It is estimated that some 65 billion
neutrinos shoot through every square centimeter of Earth every second, and yet
no one can detect them, because they are electrically neutral. Like that,
transparency to truth means we are not impacted by the torrents of glamorous
junk circulating all around us; they pass right through. There is no point in
holding on to them. Hate, greed and anger are like powerful electrical charges
with tremendous magnetic attraction. The yogi neutralizes their electricity
using intelligence, so like neutrinos they can transit the system without
causing any damage.
might be feeling perfectly fine, but then we hear a terrible accusation made by
someone on the radio. The thought really makes us angry: those awful people,
how dare they! They should all be shot. Then if we meet someone who resembles
that type of person we may lash out at them. If we don’t, at least we go
through the day fuming and resentful. What a terrible condition!
yogis have moments when they viscerally respond to provocations—after all,
that’s what the brain is designed to do very well—but where ordinary people
treat such stimuli as a call to arms, the yogi treats them more like a pesky
mosquito to be shooed away. The provocation only lasts a few seconds, but our
response to it determines whether or not it moves in as a permanent resident.
If it does it’s like capturing the whining mosquito and keeping it in a jar so
we can show our friends how annoying it is, over and over again. Jill Bolte
Taylor describes the neurological basis for this:
Although there are certain limbic
system (emotional) programs that can be triggered automatically, it takes less
than 90 seconds for one of these programs to be triggered, surge through our
body, and then be completely flushed out of our blood stream. My anger
response, for example, is a programmed response that can be set off
automatically. Once triggered, the chemical released by my brain surges through
my body and I have a physiological experience. Within 90 seconds of the initial
trigger, the chemical component of my anger has completely dissipated from my
blood and my automatic response is over. If, however, I remain angry after
those 90 seconds have passed, then it is because I have chosen to let that circuit continue to run. Moment by moment, I
make the choice to either hook into my neurocircuitry or move back into the
present moment, allowing that reaction to melt away as fleeting physiology. (Jill
Bolte Taylor, My Stroke of Insight.
New York: Viking, 2006, pp. 146-147)
While much more easily described than practiced, Taylor hits
the principle of transparency to truth right on the head.
yogavyavasthitih, proper affiliation to unitive wisdom, is a positive
counterpart to the negative process of attaining transparency to truth. When we
cannot fully neutralize a toxic emanation within us, we have to offset it with
an equal and opposite electrical charge. This usually comes from a source of
inspiration, such as a great teacher like Krishna, or a persuasive written
presentation, as advocated at the end of the chapter.
to unitive wisdom is proactive; transparency to truth is pro-inactive.
is an implied sequence here too. Transparency to truth is in some respects like
cutting back the overgrown tree of our life that has many distorted and
diseased branches, and then affiliation to unitive wisdom allows new sprouts to
grow back free of corruption.
I said before, some provocations can be safely ignored, if they are only minor
distractions, but others need to be attended to and diffused. These latter
carry us away with them, and to combat them we need to repeatedly bring
ourselves back to a previously determined harmonious attitude. Determined, that
is, not by our cravings or wildly hopeful fantasies but by a recognizably
intelligent aspiration. The longer and more intensely we affiliate with a high
ideal, the easier it becomes to regain it when our baser instincts yank us off
our neural wiring merely with good intentions is a laborious, gradual process,
and the speed is proportional to the amount of deprogramming we undertake at
the outset. Much as we might wish it did, neurological transformation does not
happen in an instant. We have to be dedicated to the task, or we will be
tempted to give up in frustration. This is one of the main reasons the Gita
counsels us to not be motivated by expectations: so we don’t become impatient.
We have to have a vision grounded in wisdom even as we acknowledge our faults,
and then we can be satisfied at every moment, good or bad, and we won’t obsess
over our shortcomings.
Danam, attitude of generous sharing—when
things of value, often nowadays in the form of money, are circulated everyone
benefits, while when they are hoarded people become impoverished. This is true
within the individual as well as in the greater society. A person who is
thoughtfully generous expands and one who is selfishly retentive shrinks.
can see the effect of this principle in the transactional realm as well. For
instance, I live in the State of Oregon, which has many absentee landlords and
corporations. Its government taxes property instead of sales so that the
profits of out of state owners are to some extent retained by the State to its
benefit. Failing repeatedly to institute a sales tax, which has no effect
whatsoever on absentee owners, large corporations have demanded and gotten
direct tax exemptions. The result has been that money generated in the state
has been siphoned off, never to return, exacerbating a serious recession here.
is not unlike what happened to India’s longstanding ban on foreign corporations
doing business in the country, in order to recirculate profits to benefit its
own citizens. At long last the ban was overturned, paradoxically with the
pressure and blessings of the Hindu Fundamentalist party, and the vacuuming of
profits out of that huge market has begun in earnest. The relatively small
group of people who benefit financially is vastly outweighed by the number for
whom poverty has been the outcome.
gifting is often incorrectly taken in a literal sense, Vedantic scholar Paul
Deussen translates danam as liberality, which is exactly the point. I’m merely
touching on the topic here, because it will be extensively explored in the next
two chapters, especially XVII, 20-22.
Damah, self-restraint, is a word related
to “domestic” and “domicile.” The idea is you are Lord of all you survey, which
in the larger sense is your home. You don’t foul your own nest, or smash your
house, you care for it and everyone in it. You are at home in the world. This
is actually harder to achieve that it seems. Much of humanity feels like a
trespasser on someone else’s turf, because we are often treated that way.
That’s why we carry a vague (or acute) sense of not belonging: we’ve been
treated like imposters since we were born. We have become lost souls busily
impersonating ourselves. Only a solid grounding in our true nature allows us to
feel “at home” wherever we may be, and this is actually a very significant
does not mean repression of our self, but a caring and nurturing, winnowing the
wheat from the chaff. Our immediate reaction to provocation is often
exaggerated or otherwise off course. If we take a moment to investigate and
reflect, our responses are much more likely to be appropriate. Again, this can
hardly take place if we are on the defensive or feeling guilty, like an
intruder at someone else’s party.
Genesis in the Bible, God appoints man to care for all the “creatures of the
earth,” which symbolize aspects of the psyche. We are asked to have “dominion”
(also related to damah) over manifold aspects of our psyches, so we can bring
out their best abilities. Dr. Mees interprets it this way in The Key to Genesis:
26th verse [of Genesis I.1] tells us that the Spiritual Man should
rule the lower functions of his psyche. He should have dominion over the fish
of the sea, symbolizing the lower emotional or erotic life, and over the fowl
of the air, symbolizing the lower aspects of the spiritual life…. Further he
should have dominion over the cattle, symbolizing the higher, creative,
emotional life. Cattle yield milk. Milk is in many traditions symbolic of “the
stream of consciousness” and of the nourishing properties of the Motherly
Moon-Sphere. It yields cream, universally a symbol of the Quintessence or
Ether. The “chrism” of Christianity is a form of this “cream.” The words are even
must have dominion “over all the earth.” [In other words] Man must rule the
urges in his lower mind.
man must have dominion over “every creeping thing that creepeth upon the
earth.” This has reference to the libido manifesting physically or with regard
to the material plane. (68-69)
is often equated with simply “being good” in the way we were admonished as
children. Behaving ourselves properly. Damah is clearly much more profound an
issue than that. It must radiate from the inside out, and not be an imposition
from the superego on the rest of the psyche.
or yajante, sacrifice, another broad subject, is addressed in depth in the
next chapter, XVII, 11-13. It is also extensively covered in chapters III and
it to say that yajnah has nothing to do with propitiating deities, killing
animals, or offering fruits and flowers on an altar. It references unitive
activity, karma yoga, which means “freely chosen activity.” The Gita simplifies
the subject by recommending relinquishing expectations of reward. Action that
is not impelled by necessity or done with expectations must be freely chosen.
Necessary action must be done, by definition, and expectations inevitably play
a part in much of what we do, both necessary and unnecessary. Anything else is
sacrificial activity. This is the category—wholly absent in many people’s
lives—that the yogi seeks to amplify.
sacrifice performed to exalt the ego is denounced in verses 15 and 17 below.
self-study, is another of Patanjali’s observances. Nataraja Guru has it as
private perusal of sacred books. But it means much more than that.
Chaitanya Yati describes the further implications in his comments on
Patanjali’s Sutra II: 32. This is how svadhyaya is usually understood, and it’s
Svadhyaya is generally recognized as the study of words
passed on by seekers who have gone before. The records of the experiences of
wise people are available to us as compendiums of great works. It is worthwhile
to study those books every day. Further, it is very wholesome to spend at least
some time each day with an enlightened person, listening to their word
directly. It is not possible to gather wisdom all in one day, but each day you
can learn a little. Wise persons teach with their words, their modes of action,
their thought processes, and, above all, with their silence. Attuning to all
these aspects will bring conviction.
When what you experience, what you hear from great people,
and what is recorded in the scriptures from time immemorial all come in one
line, then you can be sure that your svadhyaya has been profitable. Such is the
royal path in which you are confirmed that whatever you have been doing as sadhana
(practice) is ultimately successful. (Living
the Science of Harmonious Union, 259)
Most importantly, all that input from our wise forebears is
to be directly applied to our own personal dilemmas, otherwise the perusal is
merely an academic pursuit. For the study to have an impact, it has to be put
into practice. Ultimately yoga isn’t about posturing on any level, physical,
mental or spiritual. It is about learning to be, unencumbered by any stereotyped poses. Only then do we gain our
we read or listen to “sacred” words, we imagine ourselves as either sacred or
profane, depending on whether we identify with them or not. This has to be
treated with care, because neither is true. The temptation to reject words
because of their limiting aspect must be overcome, since their liberating power
is too important to miss out on. Ideally, the words will inspire us without
contributing to any binding self-image.
typical seeker posits a deity absolutely other than who they are, and develops
a relationship with that hypothesis. Those with a more philosophic bent seek
truth by systematically refuting everything of a relativistic order, with the
most basic form of relativity being between them and God. If done with
wholehearted dedication and clarity of mind, both approaches “ultimately arrive
at the Adorable in which both the worshipper and the contemplative vanish,” as
Nitya puts it. (Living the Science of
Harmonious Union, 290).
ego defends itself by pretending to knowledge it in fact does not possess, and
only if it becomes healthy and courageous can it dare to surrender such a pose
in favor of straightforward honesty. We have to go beyond the all too human
tendency to presume that we know everything there is to know, and instead
cultivate an open attitude of welcoming new insights.
Svadhyaya, self study, aims to bring about this optimal
state of mind, converting us in the process from posers to practitioners.
after the ego relinquishes its fixation on itself, either positively or
negatively, can it at last turn to the Absolute or God or Nature and experience
the joy of adoration. Adoration is the perfect word, by the way. Its root is
oration, and it is usually taken in the sense of praising, words in honor of
something. But it can go the other way, meaning appreciating the words of
wisdom which enlighten. In that sense it is similar to Upanishad, which means
sitting near a teacher to listen to their words of wisdom.
discipline or austerity, is a vast category, encompassing pretty much all
striving for improvement. Although it is often used to denote extreme
asceticism, that only applies to a very small percentage of seekers. It can be
taken in a much broader sense. Tapas, another of Patanjali’s observances, has its
own section at XVII, 14-19, and is of central importance early in Chapter XVIII
references the heating up that occurs when you are passionately engaged in
something you love. This often includes the heat generated when your ego is
thwarted by your teacher or therapist, which ideally can lead either to a
breakthrough, or less fortunately precipitates a disadoption, a cooling of the
ardor and a rejection of the training. But for the casual student who is not
particularly interested in risking their creature comforts for that kind of
intensity, it can be taken simply as attaining a proper balance, the
point of doing tapas is to bring about physical and mental well-being. If we
are healthy, our mind will be available for advanced thinking and
contemplation, and if we're sick or addled it won't. We inhabit very delicate
biological systems that can be thrown into chaos by all sorts of subtle and
unsubtle pollutants, including toxic ideas and the words used to express them.
is thus something that practically everyone is obsessed with in some way or
other. The right foods, the proper exercise, the value of sun exposure, the
cleanliness of the air we breathe, how much radiation we tolerate, is all
vitally important to us. The only problem is that tapas can become an end in
itself. We can be so caught up in optimizing our health we sometimes forget to
use the resulting good feelings to align ourselves with the Absolute, or, in
modern parlance, to express our innate talents. We tend to take our health for
granted until it begins to collapse. Gurus are well aware that our bodies will
give out no matter how nicely they are treated. We are searching for that which
persists in the midst of all the deterioration, and it would be foolish to
hitch our star to the part that is doomed.
brings about asana, a properly balanced psychological position that is arrived
at intentionally through tapas. Much of yoga practice is aimed at achieving
mental balance, and as far as goal orientation goes that is the most legitimate
aspiration. Tapas is best performed sacrificially, without expectations, but at
the same time we need to have a goal of sorts or we won’t do anything. This is
a fine line, a razor’s edge to walk along. On one side lies inactivity and on
the other excessive zeal in which the means is mistaken for the end.
is here translated as rectitude. Deussen calls it right dealing, others say
uprightness and straightforwardness. Sincerity. It is the opposite of scheming,
which is a central element of the demonic attitudes listed later in the
chapter. The implications of the term are discussed in detail in XIII, 7 and
word arjavam bears kinship with Arjuna, who is always forthright, never
devious. Arjuna as the exemplary archer is an image of straight shooting. Yogis
should always stick to the point, and if they do, it becomes easier for them to
see how humans in general are experts at displacement activity. We subtly redirect
threatening conversations onto deceptively similar but more favorable terrain,
where we can defeat our opponents. This is a skill specifically taught in
rhetoric classes, useful for politicians and others who intend to manipulate
opinions, and it provides a wonderful ego defense at the same time. A yogi
should be on guard to resist the temptation and to catch others in the act, so
that the discussion stays on the subject. Only in this way can our knowledge be
clarified and aligned with its object.
straightforward doesn’t necessarily require strict adherence to truth:
sometimes a “white lie” or diversion serves a situation better than barefaced
honesty. The difference with political manipulation is the former has a
compassionate basis, while the latter is self-serving, done at the expense of
others. The manipulative version often masquerades as compassion, which misleads
a lot of trusting souls.
staying focused and clear, is actually a rare quality, though plenty of people know
how to stage a reasonably convincing masquerade. Distinguishing between the
genuine article and an imitation put forth by a great pretender is another
serious challenge the yogi faces.
truth, non-anger, relinquishment, calmness, self-integrity, compassion to
beings, non-interest in sense values, gentleness, modesty, non-fickleness,
list of positive qualities continues:
Ahimsa, non-hurting, is one of Patanjali’s restraints. His Yoga Sutra II:35 reads, “In
the presence of one firmly established in nonviolence (ahimsa), hostility
ceases.” In ahimsa an internal peacefulness is established and radiates outward
to pacify the environment. It isn’t that we stop hurting others and then become
peaceful in consequence, though that’s a decent second best, but that we become
peaceful through the realization of unity, and then harm is naturally
minimized. It is impossible to be totally free of negative impacts on our
environment, but we can at the minimum subtract all the intentional ones.
egos either identify with our social milieu or with our intellect, while only
the latter is potentially in tune with the inner light of the Self. To cope
with society we usually rely on conscious manipulations. After all, the Self or
inner being tends to be socially inept, and that’s a good thing, because society is relativistic and often short-sighted
and narrow. Manipulation works only in areas where we can make improvements,
that is, external conditions. If we imagine we are in charge of the process,
though, we have to try to affect the world through our words and actions, and
this actually adds to the chaos, causing plenty of unintended consequences. On
the other hand, if we are able to relinquish the sense of agency, it allows us
to receive and be guided by the bountiful light from within. The more time we
spend in that state, the more we grow into the unshakable unity that knits
everything together and is the basis of ahimsa.
to the demands of our life while incorporating useful inner guidance from our
unconscious, a.k.a. the Absolute, is a high art form. To further develop our
sense of unity we can nurture our identity with other people and other forms of
life. Arjuna’s burgeoning awareness of his inseparable connectedness with his
enemies in the first chapter is in fact the very thing that precipitated his
turning to a guru to commence his spiritual dedication. The seeds of ahimsa
were already sprouting in his heart.
we have achieved a real sympathetic resonance with the whole, the peace it
engenders not only affects our life but can spread to receptive beings around
us as well. This is beautifully expressed by Guru Nitya:
There is no question of wanting
to show any violence to anyone because there is no one apart from yourself. A
person who has cultivated a positive attitude of union with others—not only
humans but all sentient beings—affects others just like a magnet affects a
piece of iron by magnetizing it. The peaceful silence of a yogi will affect the
entire atmosphere around him or her with a unifying and pacifying magnetism. In
the yogi's silence everyone is disarmed. If you walk into a room and find a
person sitting there in a state of meditation, you will immediately experience
an aura of serenity. It can have such a telling effect on you that you feel
spellbound and wouldn't dare to cause that person any disturbance. Just as
anger and madness are contagious, peace and silence are also. (Living the Science of
truth, is another of Patanjali’s
observances. We can note that Krishna’s list contains both “truth” and
“transparency to truth,” which actually are subtly different. In the first
instance we are exhorted to actively mine for truth hidden beneath life’s
surfaces, which is the domain of physical science, and in the second we are
directed to open ourselves to its existence by discarding impediments, which is
the purview of psychology or mental science.
science and psychology, then, are to be brought to bear, since science seeks
truth and psychology optimizes our functioning. Because of their relative
placement in Krishna’s list, where the most important comes first, the
psychological aspect is accorded a higher spiritual value than the scientific.
That’s correct, because we see and know only what we are capable of.
is fortunate for us that science depends on psychology and not the other way
around, since we seemingly will never attain to absolute truth in scientific
terms; it is a unending unfolding process. If our well-being depended on
understanding exactly how everything works, we could never be happy until we
were all-knowing. But we can learn to access happiness within a partial
understanding. By fully opening ourselves to the present, we can attain an
ecstatically productive state of mind no matter how much we are privy to know
factually. Then too, the incremental unveiling process is blissful and
satisfying in itself.
is just beginning to realize its dependence on mental orientation, but in the
distant past this was better known, because the ancient rishis were keen
observers of the human condition. The relatively modern belief in isolated
rationalism as an incontrovertible good has been hard to slough off, though it
is beginning to be restored to its rightful place as one key element in a
spectrum of mental abilities that must all work together.
truth is the preeminent problem confronting all sentient beings once we become
aware of our limitations. In recent centuries, reason and rationality have been
the primary techniques employed to discern truth, and they have brought us far,
but more recently these tools have revealed unsettling weaknesses. Jonah
Lehrer, summing up one theme of his excellent book on neuroscience, How We Decide,
assures us that “The
reality of the brain is that, sometimes, rationality can lead us astray.” (134)
take just one example, present day logic insists on the principle of the
excluded middle, that a proposition is either true or false, period. The only
problem with that particular proposition is that it is manifestly false, or it
is only true in a rigidly defined area. It insists on the separateness of
things, heightening polarity with its bald-faced assertion of a limited
purview. So, are Muslims true or false? Christians? Atheists? People in
general? Horses? Countries? Clouds? None of these things are, strictly
speaking, propositions, but we apply the rules of logic to them anyway, taking
broad categories as monolithic entities when they are nothing of the sort. Once
we decide a group is false, we select facts to support our proposition and
discredit all evidence against it. Then we are free to commit atrocities. The
demonic qualities described later in the chapter all stem from the surety that
truth is black and white, and never the twain shall meet.
of all ages and places claim there is middle ground everywhere, and recovering
it is the route to universal amity and peace. A spiritual seeker by definition
is one who aims at unity and downplays the superficial differences in the world
itself discredits the excluded middle, with its inviolable certitudes, and has
unearthed numerous exceptions, but logic, with long habit, is slow to catch up.
Reason is simple and convincing, but the seeker of truth has to treat it with
due caution, as it is a prime way we can be fooled by our unacknowledged assumptions.
mental state is not either true or false either, it is an ever-changing amalgam
of elements with varying degrees of veracity, and we inhibit ourselves by
reducing it to simple polarities. The spiritual demand of truth is that we need
to be constantly striving to increase the percentage of validity in our
thinking, when very often a convenient fiction suits us much better, at least
from a selfish perspective. The hope of wise seers is to never leave out
anything of importance. In India especially, seers are said to be oceanic in
their awareness, with unlimited knowledge, By contrast, small-minded people
cling to narrow and exclusive views that refuse to admit any number of valid
factors. Maybe you have met some of them yourself.
truth is by no means an abstract exercise, since the way we look at the world
has a tremendous impact on it. Despite its many flaws, the United States once flourished
under a mindset—theoretical, at least— of national unity. Its motto is e
pluribus unum, “out of many, one.”
Recently, the rational certitude of separateness and selfishness has displaced
the hypothesis of unity, and the country is falling into ruin, with factions
sniping at each other while gloating insiders sneak away with the wealth.
day Rwanda demonstrates the opposite swing of the pendulum. A century or so
ago, the Belgians, who were in power, divided the Rwandan people into two
groups and fostered animosity between them. One was good, the other evil. It
didn’t take long for genocide to result, with a horrific period of slaughter
everywhere. Amazingly, though, Rwandans realized what was happening and were
able to put a stop to it. They now consider every resident to be a Rwandan,
plain and simple, and no one even dares mention the former division. In
consequence, in an astonishingly short time the country has returned to
prosperity. Everyone left alive is grateful to have survived the train wreck
and eager to insure it won’t happen again.
try to build up a belief system by creating a plausible world view. Beliefs are
necessarily partial and limited, and to the extent they are, they are false.
They may be wonderful teaching tools, but they omit much. By contrast, yoga,
aligned as it is with psychotherapy and scientific methodology, works to strip
away falsehood by throwing off the affliction of ill-considered beliefs. The
idea is that when everything false is removed, what remains is truth. Truth is
the undeniable core right in the heart of maya, which is Sanskrit for falsehood
or ignorance. If we build our castles on heaps of sand, reality will eventually
wash them away and we will lose everything we have invested our faith in. A
yogi more often prefers a humble hut to a castle in the first place, because
there is so much more sand than bedrock in our world, but also diligently seeks
out a solid foundation. After all, the goal is not opulence but renewable
death will inevitably strip away all our false accretions, be they huts or
castles, as our being is returned to its essence, yoga is sometimes thought of
as a preparation for death. The idea is that if we have pared our psyche down
to its essence of truth, when we die we won’t have to contend with the painful
bursting of all our mental bubbles, and we can concentrate solely on what is
taking place right then. Whatever decisions we need to make can be our best
efforts, instead of being clouded with regret and desperate clinging to empty
concepts. Even if death is the grand finale of our conscious life, as some
speculate, we can still drink in its beauty to the dregs. Sadly, many people
are so swathed in the cotton batting of superstitious beliefs that they will
even miss the ineffable drama of their own final act.
reason to search for truth is that basing a life on wishful thinking cheapens
it, while honing one’s attitude on the grinding wheel of critical
self-examination not only strengthens it but beautifies it, because it reveals
what is actually there, or at least tends in that direction. When the glories
of existence are subsumed in a fog of mythmaking—however clever and
attractive—they are in effect being brushed aside in favor of a less adequate
mental picture. This may be seen as one of the tragic flaws of the human race
at this admittedly early stage of its development. Conscious evolution should
entail the gradual replacement of formerly plausible hypotheses with verifiable
is fair to ask, is there anything at all we can be certain of? On examination
we have to acknowledge there isn’t much. All we know for certain is that we
exist. Awareness of our existence is undeniable, so it has to be the starting
point of a search for absolute truth. Certitude of our existence and the
existence of a universe surrounding us is possible; all else is uncertain. We
can and should speculate about truths that are uncertain, relative truths, but
these have to be open to revision. The relative is a continuum of unfoldment
and change, and it is there that certitude is an absurdity.
oft-repeated instruction to ask yourself “Who am I?” acknowledges this. It
advises us to begin our investigation with what we know for sure: that we
are important differences between absolute and relative truth. Absolute truth
is what allows everything to exist, as well as for existence to be everything,
while relative truth pertains to the accuracy with which we perceive and
conceive what exists—or doesn’t, for that matter.
criminal justice system affords a handy example. Take two people who are
suspects in a crime. Only they have absolute knowledge: one of them knows they
committed the crime and the other knows they didn’t. But the justice system is
constrained to determine the truth of the matter through a process of relative
sifting of secondhand evidence and speculation. It begins every investigation
in ignorance. By putting together bits and pieces, it is hoped that justice
will eventually prevail. Sometimes it does; often it does not.
of the pillars of spiritual life is that the more we associate ourselves with
absolute truth, the more accurately we will be able to appraise relative truth.
But there is never a moment (religious beliefs notwithstanding) when our
unitive attitude allows us to imagine we are all-knowing about relative
matters. Even the most enlightened person has a limited perspective, only much
less limited than someone who clings to their cherished interpretations. It is
critical to distinguish between absolute and relative truth: we bristle for war
and other mayhem precisely when relative truth is imagined to be absolute.
million psychological experiments have been performed to demonstrate how
limited our perception is in the best of circumstances. Relative truth is never
perfect even when all involved are trying their best. In real life, people’s
self-interest muddies the waters considerably. Only yogis and those like them
place truth above personal gain. All of us project degrees of deception
wherever we go, sometimes consciously, most often unconsciously. Because of the
impossibility of determining relative truth with absolute certainty, the wise
often recommend retiring to a calm, quiet place where untruth can be digested
one serving at a time. Only when we begin to know truth a little bit can we
then take it with us into the marketplace.
way our brains manipulate time can teach us about how they manipulate all sorts
of data, ostensibly, but not always, for our benefit. We are witnesses to a
performance staged by our minds that is an interpretation of our environment,
not the environment itself. Yoga and science are ways to fine-tune our minds so
that they delude us less and less, but because we are at the mercy of
interpretive equipment there is always a gap between truth and our grasp of it.
Doggedly believing our unquestioned sense data, as we are tempted to do, keeps
us in the dark.
Eagleman is doing some fascinating research on time. In the article about him
called The Possibilian (The New
Yorker, April 25, 2011), Francis Crick (the man who visualized the structure of
DNA on LSD and shared the Nobel prize for its discovery) told him “The
dangerous man is the one who has only one idea, because then he’ll fight and
die for it. The way real science goes is that you come up with lots of ideas,
and most of them will be wrong.”
suggests a simple experiment you can try at home. Stand in front of a mirror
and look alternately at one eye and then the other. You can feel your eyes
moving, but the image you will see is of your eyes staring straight ahead. Our
brain has edited out the motions and given us the “approved version.” While
this may be very handy in terms of survival or simply convenience, in terms of
liberation it can be a disaster.
article on time in Discover Magazine’s special issue on The Brain (Spring 2011)
Neurobiologists are slowly coming
to realize that “real time” is just a convention foisted upon us by our brains.
In any given millisecond, all manner of information—sight, sound, touch—pours
into our brains at different speeds and is reprocessed as hearing, speech, and
action. Our perception of time can be manipulated in ways that researchers have
already begun to exploit.
To understand how your brain bends time, try this trick: Tap
your finger on the table once. Because light outraces sound, the audio tap
should register a few milliseconds after the sight of it; yet your brain
synchronizes the two to make them seem simultaneous. A similar process occurs
when you see someone speak to you from several feet away—thankfully so, or our
days would unravel like a badly dubbed movie. Your mind is messing with the
time, editing out the parts that distract you. Woody Allen [among others] once
said, Time is nature’s way of keeping everything from happening at once.” He
“The brain lives just a little bit in the past,” says David
Eagleman, a neurobiologist at Baylor College of Medicine. “The brain collects a
lot of information, waits, and then stitches a story together. ‘Now’ actually
happened a little while ago.”
Or rather, our brains live in the now, and we live in the
future, without even knowing it. What we call causal reality is like one of
those live television shows with a built-in delay for the censors. (10)
This verifies the keen observations of the ancient rishis.
Science is finally catching on! All the world is indeed a stage, and what we
perceive is a supremely convincing display totally within our own minds.
of this, truth is a very slippery commodity. At least knowing that it is
reduces our urge to fight. Mainly, we have to get over our insistence that
there is a single monumental truth within the relative universe that we need in
order to stabilize our mental states. Instead, like athletes of the mind, we
can keep our balance even while in motion. Voltaire has pointed out that, “Doubt
is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd.” Nataraja Guru famously
said, “Science seeks certitude.” But it’s the seeking that matters. The minute
you rest on certitude for more than a brief respite, you lose the game.
up, it behooves us to investigate our false beliefs and discard them. Truth
will lead us, not to escape death, but to be better prepared for what is happening
instead of what we hope will happen. Our fully alert
presence is surpassingly valuable to both ourselves and our environment.
non-anger, is mainly dealt with as anger in the Gita, most definitively in
II, 62 and 63, also III, 37, and later in the present chapter. Anger is so
obviously spiritually negative it would seem that Krishna does not need to
underscore the point, and yet anger is widespread. Veiled or obvious, it is
found in nearly everyone. Righteous anger is often encouraged by religious
preceptors. The Semitic religions are famous for breeding assassins and
crusaders supposedly doing the bidding of their god. In contradistinction to
them, the Gita maintains that anger is a demonic trait while its absence is
divine, though I have even met pious Gita devotees declaiming angrily about some
silly issue or other.
does have its uses in focusing the mind and bringing a lot of energy to bear,
but it is always outwardly directed, so its benefits are limited to the
transactional world. It is true that we should not allow others to take advantage
of us or anyone else, for that matter, and anger can occasionally be useful in
repelling hostile forces. Even anger at our self, which can help pull us out of
the stupor of tamas, is an exteriorized focus, preventing us from sinking into
our depths. Anger’s spiritual failing is that it pulls us away from exploration
of the mind’s inner landscape. I don’t know of anyone who recommends an angry
meditation! For penetrating the core of wisdom, anger must be left behind.
standard way to avoid anger is to suppress it when it boils up, but the
spiritual version, which could even be said to be a culmination of all of
Krishna’s teaching, is to annul it at the source. When everything and everyone
is seen to be the Absolute in essence, it is impossible to be angry with them.
Only when we treat something as inferior or outside our circle of legitimacy can
we indulge in hatred of it. Moreover, anger is a reflection of our own
unresolved issues. We have been directed to resolve them, and one proof of
their resolution is the absence of hatred.
XVI is a very stern injunction by Krishna to take this business seriously. The
self-indulgent attitudes by which we delude ourselves into thinking we are
right and the other is wrong, or we are deserving and the other is not, are
said to bring about the degradation of the world.
relinquishment, has the lion’s
share of early Chapter XVIII, where Krishna advocates it as the ideal spiritual
attitude. It differs from sannyasa,
wholesale renunciation, in being the renunciation of goal orientation while
maintaining a refined interaction with life. Renouncing beneficial actions is
considered foolish, tamasic even, in the Gita, which ever aims at optimizing
our time spent breathing. Being alive is not a mistake!
calmness or peacefulness, is another state whose desirability we take for
granted. Yet few of us are content to be calm for long. When confronted with
something exciting or challenging we eagerly rise to the bait. Maintaining
inner peace in the face of confrontation is a high achievement.
does not mean ignoring our surroundings or turning ourselves off. It is
dynamic, the product of intelligent effort. Evolution has bequeathed us a
finely tuned apparatus for offensive and defensive parrying. We only transcend
our normal reactivity if we work hard to get over it; otherwise we remain
hapless victims of every provocative event that impinges on us. The subject has
been discussed in more detail elsewhere, notably in IV, 39 and XII, 12 and 15.
Apaisunam, self-integrity, is closely
akin to a peaceful state of mind. It means leaving others alone and
concentrating on our own issues, because that’s where the work needs to be done.
It is the opposite of evangelism, which presupposes at the very least an
egotistical pose of superiority. Those who get a little bit excited at the
beginning of their religious studies want to hype the values of their “home
team” long before they have achieved the mellowness of experiential insight.
Foisting their beliefs on others becomes a handy substitute for serious
grappling with their own shortcomings. Evangelists have devastated ancient
cultures in every corner of the globe, undermining stable and environmentally
integrated societies with crime, poverty, disease and competitiveness, while
making them ripe for economic exploitation. Bishop Desmond Tutu stated this
most poignantly: “When the missionaries came to Africa they had the Bible and
we had the land. They said 'Let us pray.' We closed our eyes. When we opened them
we had the Bible and they had the land.” Individual egotistical intentions
typically backfire as well, but usually the effects are far less egregious than
those of organized economic or religious institutions.
worthy systems of thought will spread readily by example, since many people are
interested in bettering themselves. Exploitive systems must be founded either
by force or some kind of con job, such as claiming inside information regarding
our own psyche as the proper domain of spiritual cultivation takes humility. It
is very hard to accept that we are flawed, after a lifetime of pretending we
aren’t. But the route to self-integrity passes directly through our faults;
there’s no getting around them.
Daya Bhuteshu, compassion
to beings. I don’t need to say much about compassion, which is universally
extolled, except that it isn’t something to “do,” it is a natural outgrowth of
our appreciation of unity. If we are still seeing everyone as separate, then
compassion is a forced attitude, and as such false to an extent. Nonetheless,
if you are going to mount an arbitrary attitude, it might as well be
to Nataraja Guru, in An Integrated
Science of the Absolute, Chapter X, we enjoy this clarification:
Saraha was also a Mahayana Buddhist who
lived in India about ce 850. By
way of contrast we quote a short part from his Treasury of songs:
who clings to the Void
Does not reach the
But he who practices
Does not gain release
from toils of existence.
He, however, who is
strong in practice of both,
Remains neither in samsara nor in
(E. Conze (tr.), Buddhist
Scriptures, Penguin, London,
1960, p. 180.)
non-interest in sense values, could easily have been translated as detachment.
It means freedom from all desires. Believing the taste of food is superior to
friendship, for example, is delusion by sense values. Love for your mother or
friends is not a sense value. Love is the highest value there is. So don’t
stifle it in the name of detachment. The actual word love isn’t found in the Upanishads, however. There it’s called
bliss, but we moderns mostly know it as love. Detachment has been addressed in
XIII, 8, and numerous other places.
of us habitually fail to properly distinguish “freedom from attachment” from
“detachment.” Detachment is often taken as a thoroughgoing severance of
connection with sensory experience, and as such is a dramatic hardcore practice
where normal reactions are rigorously suppressed. Freedom from attachment, on
the other hand, is a much gentler endeavor in which we still register and
respond to sense inputs but are not overly manipulated by them.
free of attachments is an intense and enjoyable form of yoga that can easily be
a fulltime practice. In the course of our day (or night) we register a gestalt,
and then observe how we reflexively respond to it. Bringing in an intelligent
assessment allows us to catch a glimpse of our attachments, which are the
discrepancy between what we might assess as a neutral reaction and what we can
observe as our actual manifestation of self-interest. We can “feel” this as
well as think it. By intuitively making adjustments in our psyche to correct
the discrepancy, we learn how to regain our mental balance at all times.
is easy to conceive of two types of detachment, one ferocious and absolute in
rejecting all input, the other gentle and tolerant of input as inevitable and
even potentially delightful.
gentleness. Interesting, isn’t it, that the scripture that supposedly
foments war actually advocates gentleness, compassion, non-hurting,
forgiveness, absence of malice, and similar dispositions? Warlike attitudes
will be listed in verse 4 as demonic. But it is always hard to surrender our
conceits, our convenient fictions. Once a label is affixed, it is difficult to
remove it. In the popular imagination the Gita remains the scripture that
like some of the other virtues, is unitive when it is the natural result of a
loving state of mind, when we can intuit how another being would feel based on
how we know we feel. This is different from the suppressed hostilities that are
cloaked in gentleness as the only safe tactic in a punitive environment. That
means it isn’t good enough to simply be gentle, it should lead us from mere
holding back to compassionate connectedness.
universal adage to “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” is the
high road to gentleness, and is readily comprehensible even to small children.
I well remember my mother pointedly asking me “how do you think that feels?”
whenever as a small boy I accidentally or intentionally hurt someone, and
considering the question inevitably made me feel remorseful and vow to change
my behavior. But again, is the principle being followed as an externally
applied “rule,” or does it spring unadulterated from the heart? Transactionally
there is little difference, but psychologically there is no comparison. We have
to discipline ourselves until the idea of gentleness suffuses our being and
becomes our natural response to provocation.
modesty, is again something of a paradox. If we try to be modest, it comes off as immodest egotism. It should
emerge in an unaffected way from our mental equanimity.
we focus too much on the details of our life, we can hardly help becoming full
of ourself. There has to be an outward-directed appreciation to counterbalance
the intense self-examination a yogi must perform. If, for instance, we take a
look at the many and varied geniuses of the human race, or the spectacularly
complex way that life functions, or great art, it is a humbling experience. We
may well have a special talent, but in that we are not alone. Extraordinary talent,
both positive and negative, abounds on all sides, and nearly all of us fall
somewhere in between the extremes.
non-fickleness. Aurobindo translates it as “freedom from restlessness,”
which is excellent, but achapalam is more than that. Fickleness means being
excessively changeable. We need to persevere in our chosen endeavors,
especially with regard to spiritual striving. Spiritual growth is sometimes a
painful process, and if we quit a program as soon as it doesn’t feel “groovy,”
we will never get past the first hurdle. I’m sure that therapists and gurus
must get frustrated when, just as they are beginning to make good headway with
some patient or disciple, they drop out to pursue a new allurement.
is well known that the traumas that warp our lives wrap themselves in
protective psychological cocoons. Some of them we can perhaps learn to live
with, but others need to be treated and cured if we are to enjoy peace of mind.
In this, we cannot rely on our immediate feelings. We have to decide on a
course and hold to it even when we crave with every fiber of our being to
abandon the quest. Just knowing that an intense struggle is bound to be part of
the cure can help us to persevere.
many of the students I have encountered expect that just doing a little watered
down “yoga” should make them eternally happy and problem-free. As soon as the
initial rush wears off, they start looking for a new thrill. If they are
challenged by a guru, they turn and run to somebody who won’t confront their weaknesses,
but instead stroke their ego. It’s hard to imagine that such a course of action
will be of much benefit. There has to be determination. It may not be as
extreme as Shankara’s desperate deer in a burning forest analogy, but it has to
be a lot more than a passing fancy.
forgiveness, fortitude, cleanliness, absence of malice, absence of excessive
respectability—these make up the divine (higher) values of anyone, O Bharata,
born for them.
the divine qualities in the third verse, we can see we are moving toward more
alertness, is translated in many different ways: vigor (Radhakrishnan),
energy (Aurobindo), Thompson has it as radiance, which is literally correct,
but hard to think of as a value to be cultivated. Radiance is more of a side
effect of absorption into the Absolute. The dictionary reveals the broad scope
of the term: tejas refers to the sharp edge of a knife, flame or light ray,
whence the idea of splendor, brilliance; also fiery energy, ardor, vitality or
spirit; which can lead to impatience, fierceness or energetic opposition
(presumably in a righteous cause); spiritual or moral power or influence,
majesty, dignity, glory, authority. Alertness then, has the intensity of a
laser beam, and includes all these nuances. It aims to cut through to the heart
of the situation.
brains are naturally brought to a state of heightened alertness by interaction
with people, especially loved ones. That’s why a guru in the form of a human
being is an ideal agent for precipitating change. Other forms of communication
pass right through us almost like neutrinos, rarely if ever engaging our
synapses. A recent article on childhood learning in National Geographic Magazine
(January 2015) reports on studies that demonstrate the immense value of human
interaction. The studies first discovered that more input was better—a greater volume
of verbal communication was directly related to higher IQ and later to better school
performance. Surprisingly, though, how it was delivered turned out to be
Exposing children to more words
would seem simple enough. But language delivered by television, audio book,
Internet, or smartphone—no mater how educational—doesn’t appear to do the job.
That’s what researchers led by Patricia Kuhl, a neuroscientist at the
University of Washington in Seattle learned from a study of nine-month-old
their study the researchers exposed nine-month-olds from English-speaking
families to Mandarin. Some of the children interacted with native Chinese
speaking tutors, who played with them and read to them. “The babies were
entranced by these tutors,” Kuhl says. “In the waiting room they would watch
the door for their tutors to come in.” Another group of children saw and heard
the same Mandarin-speaking tutors through video presentation. And a third group
heard only the audio track. After all the children had gone through 12
sessions, they were tested on their ability to discriminate between similar
phonetic sounds in Mandarin.
researchers expected the children who’d watched the videos to show the same
kind of learning as the kids tutored face-to-face. Instead they found a huge
difference. The children exposed to the language through human interaction were
able to discriminate between similar Mandarin sounds as well as native
listeners. But the other infants—regardless of whether they had watched the
video or listened to the audio—showed no learning whatsoever.
were blown away,” Kuhl says. “It changed our fundamental thinking about the
brain.” The result of this and other studies led Kuhl to propose what she calls
the social gating hypothesis: the idea that social experience is a portal to
linguistic, cognitive, and emotional development. (71)
repetitive spiritual techniques actually dull the mind, in hopes that doing so
will release the latent powers of the psyche. The Gita’s perspective is more in
tune with these neuroscientific experiments, suggesting that our enthusiasm and
alertness are the keys to developmental learning. The love of a teacher is an
ideal way to stimulate the process.
has apparently been known since the dawn of history that if you nod off in
class you won’t pass the course. The conscious mind has to be present to learn.
Aldous Huxley, in Brave New World, lampoons
the then-fashionable unconscious learning theories, where a tape recording is
played while you sleep. There it made for rote memorization without
is now known that while we are sleeping we process what we’ve consciously
learned during the day, so listening to tapes while sleeping would simply
disrupt the consolidation of information. Still, a great deal is accomplished
when we are not alert, at least consciously.
narrow focus of our conscious mind routinely screens out important information,
and for the most part this serves a useful purpose. So tejah doesn’t have to be
full time, just at the right time. This would include when interacting with a
friend or listening to a teacher. We need to be alert so we can hear what they
are actually telling us, instead of half-alert and going on automatic pilot,
hearing what we expect or want to hear.
Gonzales, in his excellent book Everyday Survival, goes into the neuroscience
behind this principle. He says, “One of the most frequently ignored factors in
our behavior is the way we form models and scripts and use them rather then
information from the world itself in most of what we do.” (24) He adds, “This
kind of coupling of mental models and scripts leads to intelligent mistakes in
all walks of life.” (26).
spiritual preceptors recommend an “ignore it and it will go away” attitude
toward conflicts: just think of God or something beautiful and your troubles
will be over. As we have often noted, that’s a great way to let our traumas (or
manipulative people) have their way with us. If the conflicts are wholly
imaginary, ignoring them might be provisionally effective, but if they are
real—and most do have a real basis—some kind of actual grappling with them is
necessary. If a guru or therapist tells you to just think of something else,
they are simply not able to help you.
all is said and done, tejas is quite a complex notion. After all, being mindful
isn’t so hard: it’s remembering to be
mindful that’s difficult. There are times when we learn despite our conscious
attention, and sometimes a distraction serves to open a blocked door. But we
make ourselves available to transformative influences mainly by being alert, in
the broadest sense of the word.
forgiveness, is a simple concept that is not so easy to put into practice,
because our ego resists it with all its might and main. Tolerance grows out of
the admission that we are in some respects limited and imperfect, works in
progress so to speak. If we can accept that in ourselves, we can grant
forgiveness to others for their failings. But the ego stakes its reputation on
being perceived as perfect, unassailable, and lovable, and so would rather
wheedle out of admitting it sometimes isn’t. A significant amount of
psychological bravery is involved in accepting our flaws.
who has been punished for making mistakes as a child is likely to have adopted
a plan to never let anyone see their weaknesses. In the back of their mind is
the fear that any blemish, if found out, will bring punishment. Authority
figures often deliberately reinforce that fear, and in consequence we become
guarded beings who hide our real self from outside scrutiny. Because we can’t
tolerate our own divergences from what passes for normal, we instinctively want
to smash it in others too. A mind-narrowing paranoia comes to replace the
trusting openness we are ordinarily born with.
we struggle to hide the fact that we are less than angelic, wracked with guilt,
and fearing punishment or embarrassment, we often cover our insecurity with
hostile bluster toward others, trying to force attention away from ourselves.
So the first step toward forgiveness is to cultivate tolerance of our own
faults. Not indulgence, only tolerance. Once that giant step is taken, the rest
is relatively easy.
means fortitude. This is another
term with a wide range of implications. Thompson and Miller call it resolve;
Aurobindo, patience. The dictionary adds supporting; firmness or constancy;
will; to fix the mind on. Dhritih is similar to the non-fickleness of the
previous verse, expressed positively rather than negatively. In both cases we
are called to stick to our program, so long as it’s a beneficial one. Only if
we intelligently reassess what we’re doing and find it lacking should we change
direction. Intelligence means an integrated confection of rational and
intuitive inspirations, not the strictly rational version that is still
worshipped in some circles. Certain parts of the mind can be very convincing in
presenting their selfish wants in persuasive guises, so “going with the flow”
can lead us off course if the flow isn’t quite what we imagine it to be. We
first have to analyze and consider, but once we have made up our mind we should
put our whole heart into our chosen endeavors.
candy-coated version of spirituality our egos would prefer has to be seen as
childish wishful thinking. Otherwise, the first insult to our fortress persona
will send us out the door. If we can accept that we need to change, then we can
align the tremendous energies of the psyche on our behalf. As Nataraja Guru
used to say, “A drastic disease needs a drastic cure.”
cleanliness or purity, is another of Patanjali’s observances. Purity or
purification is usually seen as a question of morality, of weeding out
inappropriate behavior. Nothing could be further from the truth! Well, I
exaggerate, but morality is for the most part beside the point in spirituality.
Making our behavior “good” does not bring us any closer to the sighting of the
One Beyond. In fact, focusing on being moral or artificially pure is a
distraction—albeit a very popular one—from the productive work we should be
should be noted that there are a lot of seriously deranged people who are
obsessed with moral cleanliness, and they harp on purity all the time. It can
easily become a route for mental illness to manifest. One of the greatest
spoofs of the syndrome is General Jack D. Ripper in the classic movie Dr.
Strangelove, whose obsession leads to the destruction of the whole planet
through nuclear holocaust. Earth abounds with purity fanatics who are willing
to kill for their beliefs, or at least make life miserable for anyone having a
different attitude than theirs. This type of false saucha falls within the
demonic qualities later in the chapter.
legitimate purification meant by saucha is to learn to perceive the persona we
have “made ourselves up” with, and then refuse to let it distort our life. Unless
we are a Ramana Maharshi or a Narayana Guru we will continue to maintain our
persona to some extent, but at least where we once lost our identity in it, we
can gradually recover our authentic self-awareness. A mask or veil does serve a
useful purpose in casual interactions, since that’s what most other people are
going to care about. The important thing is that if we feel unfulfilled in life
because we don’t fully match our persona, we will spend vast amounts of energy
trying to force ourselves to conform to it. It is much healthier to peel away
the junk aspects of the persona—which, after all, is the elaboration of a
strategy devised by an infant—and rediscover our authentic beingness. Who we
are is the brightest light of sentience we know of in the cosmos, but our light
has become covered over with the dirt of ignorance and self-doubt. Saucha is
where we shrug off of the grime of illusion to allow the light to shine through
ever more brightly. Again, this cleansing is a psychological rather than a
this much of purification is old hat, and yet we still over-manage ourselves
all the time, and consequently our progress is often very slow. Purity is not a
finalized position we sit in, it is a process of continually disentangling
ourselves from the well-tended brambles we routinely stumble over. We must not
do either too little or too much by way of purification, and neither indulge
our faults or get overly impatient at how many we still possess after all these
don't often realize how so much of our “normal” behavior is a defense of our
position, legitimate or otherwise. Any fixed position is indefensible in the
ultimate analysis. One very important type of purification is to wean ourselves
away from the need to defend who we think we are.
we are accused by someone, especially someone we love, it elicits a negative
response in direct proportion to the degree of our impurity, of our attachment
to a rigid position. If we are saintly, the accusations don't cause any
disturbance in us, because we are so thoroughly identified with the Absolute we
have nothing to defend. In other words, there is no guilt, nothing for the
accusations to activate. We are pure, in that sense. But to the extent we have
a hidden agenda of selfish motivations—as likely as not hidden from our
conscious mind as well—we feel compelled to bark back and keep the accuser at
this way, life itself is acting like a wise guru and throwing light into our
darkly protected areas. Our egos are content to leave a lot of garbage lying
just behind our defensive barricades, out of sight and therefore out of mind.
So life blesses us with a child, or a coworker, or even a stranger, who points their
finger at us. They probably are pointing at something else entirely, but deep
down we know what we are hiding, and we feel the sting in our heart, the pangs
of guilt. If, instead of getting angry, we use that flash of recognition to
bring what it reveals up into our consciousness, it is a true act of
of the happy results of facing these inner impurities is that the poison that
has been leaking out of them into our system can be neutralized. Much of the
time, converting lurking resentments into conscious images defangs them. This
is the practical process by which we sacrifice our presumed individuality,
which is primarily a composite of the quirks we have developed from our history
of painful and pleasurable experiences, in favor of our universal selfhood. “I”
am the person who has all these beliefs and needs (demands, desires) and as “I”
give them up I make room instead for the “laughter of the immortals,” a phrase
apparently coined by Herman Hesse in Steppenwolf.
As I become less of an I, I become more my Self, and levity soars in my
gladdened heart. I may well burst out in laughter.
cheerfulness we see in enlightened people, or the enlightenment we see in
cheerful people, comes from purifying ourselves from the hidden agendas we
secretly cling to, imagining we need them to survive. When we give them up and
find they are not at all necessary, it is like rolling a great stone away from
the door to our tomb. Coming out is such an uplifting sensation it is like
rising up to heaven, lighter than a feather.
most surprising thing of all is that the inner light, brilliant as it is, can
be ignored or veiled in the first place, permitting us to lose our way and
thrash about in outer darkness. It’s one of the greatest miracles of existence,
perhaps the greatest. Marooned in shadow, we treat the light as the miracle,
but it is our true nature, our ground. The real magic is that light has managed
to create darkness out of itself, which permits the whole panoply of
transformation to take place. If there were only light, we would have nothing
to learn and nowhere to grow.
in relation to the vision of the Self—often called seeing the light—involves
discerning the oneness within our experience. The world is not impure in any
moral sense, but its vicissitudes do capture our attention and distract it from
the underlying unity. The final benefit of purity, fitness for the vision,
comes from no longer being sucked in by the dark side of life that is always
grabbing at our lapels and shaking us.
again, all this does not mean that there are pure people and impure people. We
all have a vast store of impurities, and they make us who we are. They are perfectly
normal, but inhibiting and problematic nonetheless. We work on them to free
ourselves, but we must never trick ourselves with the lie that we are now pure,
pity the fools who aren't. Saucha,
purity, is a yoga practice, something
to do all the time, something really fun
to do all the time, and not a finalized position where I egotistically believe
I am holier than thou.
absence of malice, makes a matched pair with the final divine quality
listed, the absence of excessive respectability. The yogi does not radiate
antipathy or crave admiration. Both are outwardly directed attitudes, social
rather than spiritual, bound to turn us into something we are not.
something other than who we think we are is a subtle transformation we may not
even be aware of. This is true on every level. In the wake of World War II the
US was a paragon of civic virtue, champion of democracy, with liberty and
justice for all. But beneath that benign surface was a body politic seething
with animosity for the USSR as a symbol of repression of everything we
cherished. Many claimed—though seldom in public—that evil had to be met with
evil, and so the hostility grew like a mushroom cloud to spawn a subterranean
network of illegal and immoral specialists in “dirty tricks.” Within a short
time, the beacon of liberty had been converted into a den of iniquity, now by
far the most lethal force ever assembled by the human race. Where the original
rationale was to defend freedom and peace, the US now ruthlessly undercuts
those values all over the globe. Such is the transforming power of malice. At
least yogis are requested to avoid that tragedy in their own lives, and
hopefully serve as examples for a more intelligent “foreign policy” across the
globe. Yogis follow the spirit of my friend Johnny Stalling’s brief poem:
My foreign policy: there are no
This may well be the same virtue that brought Arjuna up
short on the battlefield, when he realized all his supposed enemies were
actually his dear friends and family.
atimanita means absence of excessive respectability. Much of this chapter
confronts the egotism that erupts from an obsessive concern with
respectability. As soon as we are separated from our true sense of self and
begin to create a persona in compensation—a process that begins long before we
are capable of doing it properly, such as after taking an advanced course in
life science similar to Krishna’s training of Arjuna—we start to weigh our
appearance in terms of its effect on others around us. Often it becomes a
mania, but one we are hardly aware of. We scheme every move, bargaining and
measuring instead of acting unitively. Everything is contractual: I need to get
this amount for what I do for you. It’s a degraded way to live, but if we are
successful we take on a sense of respectability far in excess of what we
advice does not mean we should go to the opposite extreme of being
disreputable, which is merely the flip side of the counterfeit coin named “social
perception.” We live in a paradigm where the coveting of approval by others
that prevailed for a very long time has been replaced with cynicism about other
people’s motives and a rejection of their approval. It’s now cool to be
disreputable. To the yogi, both approval and the rejection of approval are
static, binding outlooks, Procrustean in cutting the world around us down to
fit the mold we have prepared for it. Nowadays we regard other people’s views
as judgmental and without value, and that is likely to be true. Perhaps we should
include our own opinions in that assessment. Where we go wrong is in generating
a hostile attitude in order to keep outside opinion at bay. A realized yogi
employs no artificial defenses, either positive or negative.
person should strive to be who they are, no more and no less. Being in essence the
Absolute, what we are is boundless, excellent, and blissful. Foregoing that
state for a manufactured social standing is pathetic, a symptom of a psyche
that has lost its mooring.
has appointed us Her emissary to manifestation, since She's too unbusy to
attend to every detail. And as long as we keep in mind that everyone else is
also an emissary of the Source, we’ll never suffer a false sense of superiority
or messianic complex.
Abhijatasya, of anyone born for them -
Several mentions are made in the next two verses and the middle of Chapter
XVIII to people being born for certain grades of values. This should be understood
as referring to one’s native predilections, and not in any way to imply rigid
determinism by birth, as in caste. As we will see, both the “divine” and
“demonic” values—what we simply call good and bad these days—are found to
varying degrees in every person. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses. Which
ones come to dominate is a complex matter of nature influenced by nurture, or
in other words the impact of circumstances on the raw material of the incipient
human being. The important thing is what we do with the hand we have been
of the hidebound caste prejudices that are often projected onto the Gita, it is
important to realize that they are a case of seeing what you want to see, and
are by no means intended by the Guru Krishna. It would certainly be “demonic”
to presume to be able to determine someone else’s stature based solely on their
parentage. Life is primarily what you make of it, and there is no guaranteed
easy or right path to wisdom. That heredity is not a significant factor in
determining value orientation is proved by the fact that a single family almost
always contains a wide range of types within it.
would be the height of absurdity to presume we are born to be either good or
evil, which would mean we couldn’t change our allotted fate. If you believe
that, you should throw away your scriptures, because they are pointless. Forget
striving for excellence, just attend to your needs as they arise, and the devil
take the hindmost. Not too surprisingly, that misreading of the Gita lands us
squarely in the next category, that of demonic values:
arrogance, a sense of self-importance, anger, harshness, and also
ignorance—these, O Partha, make up the demonic (lower) values of anyone born
is unnecessary to dissect these demonic values here, as the bulk of this
chapter will address them in depth. They cover a surprisingly narrow range,
which tells us that they can be overcome with relative ease, just as soon as we
are courageous enough to face them. The trick is that they are the real golden disk
hiding the sun of
truth: they make us absolutely certain that our problems are someone else’s
fault, so we never turn around and face them. They are like an addictive drug
that provides a sense of total reassurance even as it corrodes the entire
neutral attitude would make us aware of how little we know in comparison with
all there is to be known. Naturally we would be humble and not pretentious—willing
and eager to learn from others and to share our little piece of the picture.
Something in the human strain, however, makes us feel embarrassed if we don’t
pretend to the world that we know everything. We feel vulnerable to attack if
we don’t live in a well-fortified bastion of ideas. We swagger around inside
our fort, taking potshots at passersby, hardly daring to venture outside the
walls. Buoyed by our sense of safety, we often become aggressive and extremely
prejudiced, since the humanity of the ‘other’ is not permitted to cross the
Robert Frost has advised, in his poem Mending Wall: “Before I built a wall I’d
ask to know / What I was walling in or walling out / And to whom I was likely
to give offence.” Unnecessary and offensive walls are at the heart of the
failings of humanity, and the saints and sages of all eras clamor for us to
refuse to build or maintain them. If we can dare to admit our limitations—perfectly
natural, and common to the most brilliant and most ignorant among us—we will
not be afraid to come out of hiding in our self-imposed prison, and we can stop
divine values are deemed to be for emancipation, and the demonic for bondage to
necessity; do not regret, O Arjuna, you are born for the divine values.
difference between attitudes that emancipate and those that bind is as great as
night and day. Philosophers and writers throughout history have marveled at how
large segments of the human race can so easily adopt attitudes of lethal
negativity, often in the name of some divine principle no less.
“birth” to divine or demonic values takes place over a long stretch of time,
mostly after our natal birth, though womb time is also a factor. Somewhere in
our timeline we change over from compliant children to masters of our fate, and
here is where our compilation of influences for better or worse will be a force
for us to contend with. It would be wonderful if children were encouraged and
directed toward higher values in a supportive way, but such is not often the
case. At least Arjuna has been so fortunate, as Krishna acknowledges here. You
should be very grateful if you too have enjoyed such support.
simple example of how profoundly a mindset can affect people is the widespread
attitude that if a married woman loses her husband, for whatever reason and at
whatever age, there is no further point to her being alive. No avenue of
legitimate expression is open to her. Many cultures prescribe a kind of living
death for widows: they are treated as insentient property that has been
abandoned by its owner. They are wrapped in obscuring veils, incapable of going
out in public, holding a job, or dating. It makes jumping onto the husband’s
funeral pyre seem a viable option. With an extremely minor attitude adjustment,
such women could be welcomed into many aspects of social life without the least
detriment to anyone, and benefits to many.
religious types may curse anyone trying to alleviate that kind of unnecessary
suffering, calling them wicked and ungodly. The Gita wants us to be clear on
this business, so it takes a chapter to reveal the psychology of those who
derive pleasure from the oppression of others, who are equally or more
ubiquitous in the modern world as they were in the ancient one. They are driven
to cause unhappiness in the name of God. This part of the Gita calls to mind
the song by the Beatles called Think for Yourself:
I've got a word or two
To say about the things that you
You're telling all those lies
About the good things that we can
If we close our eyes
Chorus: Do what you want to do
And go where you're going to
Think for yourself
'Cause I won't be there with you
I left you far behind
The ruins of the life that you
have in mind
And though you still can't see
I know your mind's made up
You're gonna cause more misery
Although your mind's opaque
Try thinking more if just for
your own sake
The future still looks good
And you've got time to rectify
All the things that you should
Why don’t we all make up our minds to stop causing misery? What a difference it would make! Every person,
without exception, is born for the expression of “divine values,” but somewhere
along the line the possibility has been stripped away.
are two orders of created beings in this world: the divine and the demonic; the
divine have been described at length; hear from me now of the demonic.
focusing on the everyday aspects of life and tuning out the transcendental we
can very easily become enmeshed in misery and destructive behavior. The Gita
has been predominantly positive throughout. It is only fitting that the
negative possibilities be covered also, if only to turn us more toward their
antidotes. Just because both sides of a coin exist doesn’t mean we have to
admire them equally.
quite unhelpful to imagine that there are fully good and wholly evil people in the
world, with no gradations of overlap between them. It goes against yoga
dialectics, which never excludes the middle ground between poles. All these
aspects may be found to a degree in everyone, at least in potential form, and each
reader should take the admonishments as applying to them especially, though not
contrast to the Pollyannaish tales of sugary instruction by doting gurus, there
is another method with a much longer tradition: the path of intensity and
adversity. Most humans grow primarily in response to challenges, and tend to
stagnate when their environment is overly comfortable. A guru or therapist who
merely mouths slogans and offers condolences is not doing anything particularly
helpful. If they are truly engaged in the transformation of someone in their
care, they will confront their unexamined conceits and psychological blind spots,
and find a way to bring them to acknowledge them. Each disciple is to some
degree a unique puzzle to unlock, so every dialogue will differ. While often
uncomfortable, the heat generated by the friction of conflict between the truth
of the guru and the limitations of the disciple—known as tapas— supplies the
impetus to lift the psyche out of its pool of tamasic stagnation and set it on
a sattvic path of growth and unfoldment.
should study the upcoming diatribe in this light. Don’t think Oh, this is about
other, bad people. Think instead, how do I take this to heart? How do these
exhortations apply to me and my hidden selfishness and unconscious scheming?
Otherwise reading it will be a waste of time.
demonic men do not know the way of positive action, nor the way of negative
withdrawal; in them is found neither cleanliness, nor propriety in conduct, nor
two paths mentioned here are known as asti asti and neti neti. Both paths may
be tried at different times, or some seekers use one exclusively, depending on
their temperament. The former, the way of positive action, is called asti asti,
“and this, and this.” Everything is accepted as part of the Absolute. This is
the essence of the active path, and it undercuts the ordinary attitude that
considers some things as desirable and some as avoidable by envisioning everything
as a form of the Absolute. Krishna has referred to it earlier, for instance IV
35: “Having known this, Arjuna, you will not give way to delusion thus any
more; by this all beings without exception will be seen by you in the Self and
thus in Me.”
neti, “not this, not this,” is the path of withdrawal. It negates the delusion
of focusing on the surface play of life and forgetting the Absolute ground or
core. Nothing is purely the Absolute by itself, so denying everything can lead
the mind to contemplate the emptiness that is universally present. Krishna has previously
referred to the basis of this path also, for instance in VII, 13-15: “Deluded
by these three manifestations of value, this whole world is unable to know Me,
who am beyond them and unexpended. Verily this divine illusion of Mine, made up
of the manifestations of value (gunas), is hard to surmount. Those who seek Me
alone pass over this illusion. Foolish evildoers, lowest among men, do not
attain Me, their wisdom being distracted by illusion, affiliated as they are to
the demonic (or non-intelligent) aspect of nature.”
withdrawal and “getting some distance” are not the same, though they look
similar. It is usually necessary to stand apart to calmly assess any situation,
but minus the negative emotions this is not withdrawing, it is an
intensification of engagement in an intelligent manner.
we forget our identity with the unifying principle of the Absolute we become
“demonic” or at least confused or stupid. Lack of cleanliness here refers to the
absence of a healthy and kind attitude, not physical dirtiness, obviously. Like
cleanliness, proper conduct arises from a heightened awareness of the total integrated
picture, as does truthfulness or veracity.
say that the world is without true existence, without a basis, without a
presiding principle, not resulting from reciprocal factors (lying beyond
immediate vision), as if asking, “What else is there other than that caused by
verse is leading us to the following premise: to those who take the world out
of context, it appears to be nothing more than a complicated pile of sand in an
accidentally assembled sandbox. While it is then logical to presume the pile
can be manipulated with impunity, actions based on that false perspective are likely
to become highly destructive. By contrast, Krishna’s spiritual science urges us
to look closely into the intrinsic harmony of the pile and realize that our
actions have far-reaching implications, including boomeranging back on us. If
we make the effort to thoroughly examine the world, our attitude will change
dramatically. In the symbolic terms of the chapter, we shift from demonic to
divine, careless to caring.
Laszlo, in Science and the Akashic Field,
(Inner Traditions, 2004), quotes a titan of the materialist viewpoint as
essentially paraphrasing this verse, and also adds the antidote:
The depressive futility inherent
the negative face of Western civilization has been spelled out by the renowned
philosopher Bertrand Russell: “That man is the product of causes which had no
provision of the end they were achieving,” he wrote, “his hopes and fears, his
loves and beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms;
that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an
individual life beyond the grave; that all the labors of the ages, all the
devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are
destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and the whole
temple of man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a
universe in ruins—all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so
nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand.”
the face of progress need not be so cold, nor the face of fall so tragic. All
the things that Russell mentions are not only not “beyond dispute,” and not
only are they not “nearly certain”; they may be the chimeras of an obsolete
view of the world. At its cutting edge, the new cosmology discovers a world
where the universe does not end in ruin, and the new physics, the new biology,
and the new consciousness research recognize that in this world life and mind
are integral elements and not accidental by-products. All these elements come
together in the informed universe—a comprehensive and intensely meaningful
universe, cornerstone of the unified conceptual scheme that can tie together
all the diverse phenomena of the world: the integral theory of everything. (pp.
In light of the profound ancient wisdom of the Vedas and
Upanishads, I would only change this to read that the new cosmology is rediscovering—rather
discovering—something that was once known. A detailed discussion of this can be
found in my article The Trajectory of
Science, accessible here: http://scottteitsworth.tripod.com/id18.html.
it is fading out to some extent, the modern world is still beset by the belief
system outlined in this verse, because it appeals to a noncontemplative outlook
that relies solely on appearances. That’s why Nataraja Guru added the
clarification that the reciprocal factors are beyond immediate vision. There is
more at stake in life than material success, but what it amounts to is by no
means obvious. The well-being of everyone and everything is directly impacted
by intangible karmic effects, which are so complicated that they cannot be
directly traced. Since their repercussions are out of sight and largely in the
future, they appear to be ignorable. But they are not. As contemplatives
quickly realize, they can come back with a vengeance.
inner connections of everything being invisible, it is easy to be deluded by
our sensory view of the world into believing that we are independent creatures
and our actions have only immediate and obvious consequences. Disruptions of
the inner balance can be ignored, at least until you look around and notice
that all biologic systems are crashing and the peaceful refuges of the world
are fast disappearing.
or the lust for immediate satisfaction of needs is at the heart of what we
might call the corporate mentality, where short term profits are the only
consideration, and morality is at best a hindrance, a cost delivering no
benefit. In the next verse, Krishna will assert that this outlook brings about
the world’s decline, and observing the devastation of the globe from the
craving for short-term profits this can no longer be considered speculative.
problem is that there is not only no instant karma from deception: it often
produces temporary success, and it's highly addictive. The swagger of a
politician is the body language of a successful deceiver, giddy from getting
away with murder. Remember the rush when you were a young child, stealing a
cookie and not getting caught. It was intense! But the easy, dishonest road to
success actually leads into a locked room with no escape. War, for example,
always seems so tantalizingly simple, a quick sortie and it will be over, with
lots of lucre and only other people suffering, but it quickly engulfs everyone.
capitalism fills the bill as the most widespread modern religion, and it
springs from the quasi-scientific hypothesis that the world is made up of compilations
of tiny, lifeless particles that somehow achieved a degree of complexity that
allows for the illusion of existence. The view of the ancient rishis, that the
universe consists primarily of consciousness, and therefore is an interdependent
matrix, is only very recently beginning to loom large again in scientific
awareness. Until it infuses the human species with all the “divine” values of
the first three verses, we must wrestle with the karmic consequences of
materialism. If the world is built up from insensate particles, nothing is
connected to anything else. Everything is independent, so it’s everyone for
themselves, and nothing matters except immediate gratification. The impact of
this philosophy can be easily seen in the worldwide destruction it is causing.
Paradoxically, some of the older religions subscribe to and cheerlead the
devastation, in hopes that God will set things straight after we wreck the
planet, or under the theory that ignoring a problem makes it go away. This is
ignorance squared: a stupid application of a ridiculous proposition, and all
the inhabitants of our planet will suffer the consequences.
free-market capitalism in its present form is based on the presumption that all
beings are best motivated by their lusts, and this produces the optimal
outcome. In actuality we have crony capitalism, where the most fortunate come
to dominate the less fortunate, independent of any innate ability on anyone’s
part. At its extreme, partisans of this system, worshipping lust in the form of
greed as the highest value, take delight in torture, murder and grand larceny.
Part of the fun is to sneer at anyone attempting to uphold liberal, unifying
values, such as those listed in verses 1-3.
immediate impact of these beliefs is to unmoor behavior from truth. The value
of an idea is its serviceability in manipulating others, not its innate worth.
Unfortunately, without a bedrock of truth, honesty is, well, dishonest. But because
of the elusive nature of truth, a whole genre of ersatz honesty has taken
center stage, in which we are unconcerned with our ignorance. After all, lashing
our ignorance to our goals is much less taxing than educating it away. This
trend has now progressed to the next logical step of undermining truth
completely by making it a pragmatic tool of commercial exploitation, both
personal and corporate. Put simply, if what we wish to have happen is the only
truth of any value, and if deception is the means to that end, then any amount
of prevarication is acceptable. Needless to say, an honest person cannot accept
such a travesty. As we have so often maintained, the primary task of a yogi is
to discard whatever is false and deceptive to arrive at the underlying truth
that is always present. Realized yogis are living proof of the validity of an
engaged and caring lifestyle.
his biography Word of the Guru,
Nataraja Guru (then a mere youthful orator) recounts a passionate diatribe by
Narayana Guru against the destructiveness of humanity. Here’s the last part:
is terribly inconsistent. The state, which calls itself interested in humanity,
would, for example, vehemently forbid even a man suffering from the worst form
of skin disease to quit his miserable body. On the other hand, it will madly
engage itself in wholesale manslaughter, after due deliberation and in the holy
name of altruism or religion. Man does not know what he does, although he
prides himself on being more intelligent than the animals. It is all a mad
deluded rush.” “Oh, this man!” he said, lapsing into wistfulness… “He must lay
waste; his greed can be satisfied only by the taking away of life.” As the Guru
repeated the word Man, the youthful orator watched his composed features
and could not but discover a distant tinge of sadness in his voice and in his venerable
features. “Man knows not what he does,” the Guru repeated, and became silent
for a moment. “It would not have mattered so much,” he continued, “if the
effect of man's misdeeds struck its blow only at mankind. But the innocent
monkeys and birds in the forest have to forfeit their peaceful life because of
man. The rest of Nature would be thankful if, in the process of
self-destruction, man would have the good sense to destroy himself if he must,
alone, leaving the rest of creation at least to the peace which is its
always, though, we want to apply these principles primarily to ourselves. If we
pin our hopes solely on reforming politicians or their corporate employers,
we’ll have to think in terms of many lifetimes. Instead—or I should say in
addition, because reforming the exterior world is an admirable calling—we want
to focus on what we can accomplish now, which means waking ourselves up to
truth. We may hope that this will catch on in the larger world, but we aren’t
holding our breath.
know in our hearts that we, too, are not totally honest. The practice of yoga
is aimed at sweeping away the garbage we have amassed to bolster our
self-image, in order to reacquaint ourselves with our true nature, which is
identical with the Absolute. In the process, the selfish ‘I’ that is a
projection of our wants and worries melts away. Whatever fear we feel is going
to hold us back from making a sincere effort, due to our false identification
with the persona at the expense of our real self. We need to change our primary
alliance from our ego to the Absolute.
lust (kama) of this verse has almost nothing to do with sexual passions; it is
about desire in general. Sex is not considered relevant to the Gita’s
spirituality one way or the other, unless it happens to be a disruptive
craving, but it remains a subset of the principle Krishna is expounding. Later
pundits advocated sexual abstinence and it became a big deal in some religions,
but not here. Lust means you are no longer content to receive your due from the
beneficence of the Absolute, you have to charge out and get it, usually by
force. You crave things, in the expectation that they will compensate for the
emptiness of your psyche. Lustfulness is a way of looking at the world based on
the innate impoverishment of materialist beliefs. The market religion extols
this kind of lust as the prime motivator of human beings, and it does have a
point there. The problem is it is a conscienceless motivator, and one with
terrible and far-reaching consequences. Unleashing the paranoiac lusts of the
populace is not a healthy economic policy. It would serve us all much better to
redirect our energies to healthier options, as the Gita recommends. Again, this
is something that can mainly be accomplished on the individual level.
idea of “reciprocal factors” should be clear enough by now. They are extolled
in the Golden Rule and Newton’s law of inertia, among many other places. The
Indian notion is that the universe arises from consciousness in the following
manner. As awareness of existence comes into being, unitive consciousness
splits into a subjective and an objective component, which are reflections of
each other. All polarities are therefore inextricably connected within the neutral
ground of consciousness, which for convenience we call the Absolute. Since they
are connected, operations on one side
equally affect the other. Ignorance of this basic principle of reciprocity
impels people to go off on harmful and deluded tangents, smugly imagining they
are hurting only others while benefiting themselves. When one treats the
transactional world as an unconnected phenomenon, it is possible to conceive any
number of workable but deadly poisonous methods of manipulation. A healthy
philosophy must be related to the Absolute as a ground and moral balancing
factor, otherwise our actions may go cruelly and explosively wrong.
again, we are not to be diverted from self-improvement by imagining these words
of Krishna apply only to others—a widely popular misunderstanding. We have to
recognize these tendencies in ourselves. Indulging in a materialistic attitude we
may be tempted to feel that since there is no god looking on and judging us, we
can “get away” with anything. The Gita reminds us there is an inherent
reciprocal principle upon which the whole world is based. Exploitation may not
be witnessed by any god, but it bears the seeds of its own destruction within
its very essence. Whatever we believe or say, this remains the overriding truth
of the matter. Reciprocity is as much a law as gravity, and we violate it at
our own risk.
course, spiritual aspirants will find reciprocity to be a rewarding and
delightful condition as soon as they incorporate it into their life. Sensing
the inner interconnectedness of things, sharing and compassion are the best
reward anyone could wish for, and the negative consequences of selfishness
simultaneously come into plain sight, aiding us to turn away from it. We just
have to remember that karma is complex, and there are not so many one-to-one
relations between what we do and how the environment reacts. If we look to the
world to reciprocate our intentions in a predictable way, we are likely to be
enough, this verse is among other things a highly accurate description of the
present day neoconservative movement, founded by Leo Strauss of the University
of Chicago, and bearing a close kinship with the so-called Objectivist
philosophy of Ayn Rand. Its philosophy is like an incurable virus. Preying on
the impossibility of determining absolute truth in relation to the horizontal
plane, acolytes are trained to assert lies that support their will to power,
wealth and security. Deception is the fundamental principle. Its implementation
is well thought out and self-ratifying. It’s a very successful strategy, at
least in the short term. At the present writing its members have taken control
of the most powerful nation on earth and have significant claims in several
others, at least.
technique is straightforward: set aside morality, subjective as it is, then act
with determination and a plausible but deceptive cover story, and keep on
rolling in pursuing your own interests at the expense of everyone you view as not
sharing your goals. While good hearted but less bold souls busy themselves
trying to sort out the truth from fiction, neoconservatives bulldoze ahead in a
political blitzkrieg. Pleas for morality are derided as weakness, and religion
is cynically exploited for its value in manipulating the gullible. One can but
ruefully admire the movement’s successes, while lamenting the ruined lives and
piles of corpses left in its wake. It uncannily resembles a grownup version of
a two-year-old’s temper tantrum, presuming said infant was armed with the most
powerful weapons ever devised.
contemplatives, these tendencies must be familiar to us. We have mostly
repressed them in the name of ethics, but they are in us too, a legacy of millions
of years of “eat or be eaten.” The widespread myth that we are the good people
and others are the expendable evil ones is one of the greatest stumbling blocks
to yogic awareness and realization.
his autobiography Love and Blessings,
Nitya Chaitanya Yati relates a discussion he had with Gandhi, who describes
truth as many-faceted, like a diamond. Gandhi meant that truth includes the sum
total of perspectives involved in any situation. There is the truth of
individual conviction (one facet per person), the truth of the totality of
individual convictions (all facets together, constituting the surface), and a
transcendent truth that is the Source of all (the core structure) which
paradoxically penetrates all the way to the surface.
image demonstrates how each person has their own sense of certitude, their own
version of truth, but only when you knit them all together can you begin to get
a sense of the whole picture. Moreover, all the facets are held together by the
solid reality of the diamond itself, without which they would only exist in
isolation, and there would be no meaning in the world. We should keep in mind
that relational truth refers to only specific facets of the symbolic diamond,
and not the whole jewel. Taken in isolation they can mean just about anything.
value of relational truth between one facet and another should not be
minimized. It is the truth of what we experience in the transactional world,
and is related to Narayana Guru’s admonition “Ours is not to argue and win, but
to know and let know.” We are here to share, not to conquer. One facet is not
more important or valuable than any other; all contribute to the beauty and
symmetry of the diamond. The basis of democracy, among other things, is a
mutual respect between facets who are all aware they are only “a piece of the
continent, a part of the main,” in John Donne’s immortal words.
modern hubris-saturated politicians loudly proclaim “The truth is what we say
it is,” while rushing full speed ahead into a rock wall, a contemplative first
becomes familiar with their own truth and then looks to incorporate all the
other needs and angles of vision into it. The All is embraced. There is no
compulsion to exclude any part of the picture in order to gain advantage over
others, since the maximum good of all is the goal.
of the picture are always only relational truths. The Absolute is truth itself.
At least in the Indian view, the Absolute is exactly what is true, whereas the
relative views express—with varying degrees of accuracy—fragments of the whole.
Therefore a contemplative seeks the Absolute within every event, and is not
content with the relative truths of the part that fluctuates.
holding to this view, these men of lost souls, of little understanding, of
harsh deeds, emerge as non-beneficial, effecting the world’s decline.
Gita doesn’t particularly aim at reforming society, so this is one of the few
sections somewhat concerned with human impact on the world. In its perspective,
the world is a flux of roiling positives and negatives in constant conflict and
interaction, and it will always be that way. The task of the individual is to
break free of this maelstrom to allow rapid development of their best
qualities. This requires such intense dedication that there is no time for
tilting at windmills or aiming to cure eternal dilemmas.
here we are asked to consider that selfish values are a tragedy that affects
the whole world. When pursued without restraint they transform our earthly
paradise into a hellish desert. This alone should motivate us to change our
mindset. Shouldn’t we treasure the glory of the existence we have been granted,
that we had nothing to do with bringing about, and care for it to the best of
our ability? Shouldn’t degrading any bit of the planet we live on be one of the
things we are most careful to avoid, and to mitigate when it happens? It is
nothing but selfishness that closes our eyes to the tragedies strewn in our
intractability of selfishness is legendary. If you have ever tried to lift a
friend out of a negative state of mind, you know how frustrating it can be:
their ego parries every well-intentioned thrust like an expert swordfighter,
and if you make an irrefutable point they simply tune you out. Our egos decide
in advance to cling to what we want, and they are masters at holding onto it.
Yogis are those who are willing to sacrifice their cherished views for a better
one, and so are open to critical input. As they gain confidence in themselves,
they realize there is no need to resist differing opinions. Those who are
insecure and unsure of themselves are paradoxically the ones who cling hardest
to their shaky beliefs.
all this resistance, there is always plenty of room for helping out where help
is needed, in a natural way. Since all the “demonic” values enunciated here are
basically selfish, it stands to reason that the opposite “angelic” traits are
largely unselfish. Even while gaining freedom in solitude, the thoughtful seeker
will have plenty of interactions with people of all stripes, and the quality of
the exchanges can be made valuable to both sides.
should always remember that when Arjuna wanted to run away from the
battlefield, Krishna asked him to hold his ground. The current political
situation in the United States is a perfect example of what happens when all
the unselfish people either retreat or are driven off the field: it becomes a
wasteland of cruelty and destructiveness. Difficult though it may be, standing
firm in the midst of chaos is part of the dharma of each principled person.
Before this can become an accomplished reality, though, it is essential to sit at
the feet of a wise preceptor and come to know who you are and what the meaning
of life is, as well as how the two fit together. Then the ill winds of public
greed and hatred cannot move you from your stable ground, solidly based on your
own inner understanding of truth. History is filled with the tales of
well-intentioned people who acted without adequate knowledge or wisdom and
quickly became part of the problem rather than part of the solution. So the
Gita asks us to build a relationship with the transcendentally neutral Absolute
first, and it teaches us how. Once this is in place, our actions spring from
the harmonious depths and are resistant to superficial motivations, which tend
to have disastrous consequences.
Christian mystic Thomas Merton sums up the results of buying into the
power-mad, “dominative” view of reality, in his masterful book Faith and
Violence (University of Notre
Dame Press, 1968). When it becomes a
widespread mindset, the collective compulsion “becomes a vast aggregate of
organized hatred, a huge and organized death-wish, threatening its own
existence and that of the entire human race.” (220-21)
to insatiable desires, accompanied by pretentiousness, arrogance, and madness,
fondly grasping false values deludedly, they act with unclean resolve.
this sounds like a perfect description of power mad politicians—and it is!—we
have to relate it to ourselves as well. What this means is the ideas we console
ourselves with about how to live and what to think are our substitutes for what
we often call spirituality: true living and thinking as they pour into the
present moment. Beguiling ersatz ideas are the essence of idol worship.
Merton’s aforementioned book Faith and
Violence is a brilliant exposť of idolatry, of how we “fondly grasp false
values deludedly.” He writes at length about simulacra, simulations, the term the Latin Vulgate (Bible) uses for
idols. He claims we consider ourselves free of idolatry because we think of
idols as little statues or Pagan altars, but an idol is basically an image, a simulacrum.
He sees television (and
would certainly generalize it to “screens” nowadays) as one of our most beloved
idols, and we worship its simulations hour after hour, day after day. Worse, we
have established a comfortable image of ourselves as not being idolaters, so we
don’t worry about this most crucial aspect of spirituality. Echoing Krishna’s
excoriation, Merton warns us that our arrogant self-satisfaction leads us to
destruction: “Our idols are by no means dumb and powerless. The sardonic
diatribes of the prophets against images of wood and stone do not apply to our
images that live, and speak, and smile, and dance, and allure us and lead us off
to kill.” (p. 153)
emphasizes this with a conclusion that is a vivid description of modern
political reality, and anyone seeking to grasp the relevance of the teaching
has only to look at the sea of corruption we are currently drowning in:
we have an image (simulacrum) of
ourselves as fair, objective, practical and humane, we actually make it more
difficult for ourselves to be what we think we are. Since our “objectivity” for
instance is in fact an image of ourselves as “objective” we soon take our
objectivity for granted, and instead of checking the facts, we simply
manipulate the facts to fit our pious conviction. In other words, instead of
taking care to examine the realities of our political or social problems, we
simply bring out the idols in solemn procession. “We are the ones who are
right, they are the ones who are
wrong. We are the good guys, they are
the bad guys. We are honest, they are
crooks.” In this confrontation of images, “objectivity” ceases to be a
consistent attention to fact and becomes a devout and blind fidelity to myth.
If the adversary is by definition wicked, then objectivity consists simply in
refusing to believe that he can possibly be honest in any circumstances
whatever. If facts seem to conflict with images, then we feel that we are being
tempted by the devil, and we determine that we will be all the more blindly
loyal to our images. To debate with the devil would be to yield! Thus in
support of realism and objectivity we simply determine beforehand that we will
be swayed by no fact whatever that does not accord perfectly with our own
preconceived judgement. Objectivity becomes simple dogmatism. (pp. 154-5)
Thomas Merton is the poster child for the incisive wisdom
that blossoms in the awakened mind of the contemplative. This is essentially a
perfect explication of the human weaknesses that the Gita also brings to light
as a caution against spiritual blindness.
with infinite cares lasting till doomsday, for whom desire and enjoyment is the
supreme end, cocksure that such is the way,
hard to believe that the people of the ancient world exhibited these identical
modern characteristics. We like to think of them as easygoing, devil may care
types, but apparently we haven’t changed much as a species in the last few
thousand years. Nor have all the “labor saving devices” and advancements in
science and philosophy over the millennia set us free. Apparently, liberation
must come from another direction entirely.
Isavasya Upanishad rhetorically asks, “Whose is wealth? Relax and enjoy!” The
idea is that wealth comes from our mental state, not from the endless pursuit
of perishable items represented by money. External buffers don’t satisfy us for
long, so we have to direct our efforts to getting more in a never-ending
procession of demands. The wisdom of the rishis directs us to come to happiness
and contentment first, after which all our endeavors will be fulfilling instead
of merely enlarging our lust for more.
dopamine model of brain functioning is relevant here.
Brain imaging studies have revealed that avoiding pain and
seeking enjoyment is precisely how the brain functions on a regular basis. When
our expectations based on previous experience are met, it is accompanied by a
little jolt of dopamine that makes us feel good, and when they aren’t met we
suffer the misery of dopamine’s absence. We go through life trying to adjust
what went wrong, indicated by suffering, to make it right, indicated by
pleasure. This takes place on many levels, including the rational, but more
importantly on what could be called the instinctual. Some pain can be avoided
by intelligent analysis, but that’s only the tip of the iceberg. The brain is
addressing our needs in amazingly complex ways, which are fortunately veiled
from our conscious awareness. Otherwise we would be overwhelmed by the sheer
magnitude of processing that is going on. We touch these instinctual levels
when we dive deep in meditation, but if we simply ignore them, they drive us for
the most part without our realizing it.
intent of yoga is to transcend the whole business of pain-pleasure
conditioning. Ordinarily we are obsessed with avoiding pain and receiving
pleasure, both consciously and unconsciously. With Krishna’s guidance we are
trying to get to a clear space beyond the “infinite cares,” the surging ocean
of ups and downs that defines our mentality more thoroughly than we realize.
too often, we mistake a sophisticated search for pleasure for the enlightenment
held out in Vedanta and elsewhere as the highest ideal. In How We Decide, (Boston: Mariner, 2009), Jonah Lehrer describes how
science has come to the same conclusion, that pleasure isn’t the be-all and
end-all of existence. Lehrer reports that in one experiment, electrodes were placed
in rats’ brains at the spot where pleasurable feelings are generated (the
nucleus accumbens). Then a small electric current was run into the electrodes,
producing a continuous state of bliss. The rats immediately lost interest in
eating, drinking, sex, movement, everything. They became totally detached from
their surroundings. In only a few days, though, they all died of thirst,
because they were no longer responding to the needs of their bodies. Only a
scientist would prolong the experiment to that extreme; a philosopher would see
what was going on, shut off the stimulation, and give them a drink. But that’s
another issue. The point is that obtaining eternal pleasure isn’t the answer.
It’s not even a good idea.
contemplative way to avoid pain and alleviate suffering is not by replacing it
with a permanent stream of expensive, exciting, dopamine-producing
experiences—which is the materialist, consumerist mentality, universally held
up as the ideal in popular culture—but of a dynamic, interactive absorption in
the Absolute: the neutrally balanced state lying beyond the give and take of
dopamine-driven actions. This is the wisdom at the heart of yoga philosophy.
by a hundred cords consisting of expectations, given to lust and anger, they
strive unfairly to hoard wealth for sensual enjoyment.
you live a life based on titillating your nervous system, then you have to make
arrangements for it to continue. Costly, time-consuming arrangements, generally
speaking. The temptation is never far off to gather more than your fair share
of nature’s bounty and cling to it, and it can very easily become a full time
obsession. Each strand of income production is a binding cord woven out of
demands on your time and energy.
we mistake the form for the content. This type of snare is always waiting to
gobble us up, whether it’s the church, the workplace, the identity group, or
simply even the family. We can participate in all these things, but a yogi does
it as a free spirit and not as a dutiful team member interested in upholding a
collective fiction. Any fixed posture we become enamored with exerts a powerful
tamasic pull to keep us mired in place.
Guru, in Atmopadesa Satakam, pictured
a contemplative sitting calmly under a great tree. He is peaceful but
exceedingly careful to avoid the clinging vines that grow up the trunk, that
reach out their tendrils and try to bind him fast. Like him, we are called to
“come out” of our false identities through contemplation, and not merely substitute
a new form of bondage for the old, but break free and remain free. In this
eternal quest we have the good company of wise seers from near and far. Because
we so easily forget ourselves, they help us remember who we are.
to Krishna, we should live our lives without expectations about the outcome of
our actions. In the Gita’s poetic but antique language this is expressed as
relinquishing the fruits of our actions. The point is that expectations
undergird most of what we do, and disrupt the naturalness of the flow of our
lives. In the dopamine model just described, the brain is an elegant and
complicated expectation-meeting machine. Obviously we cannot safely abandon the
functioning of our brain. The secret is that our conscious expectations block
out the intelligent expectations generated in the unconscious. When we hold
back from what we superficially imagine to be in our best interests, what
really is in our best interest is
allowed to bubble up to the surface.
must be obvious by now, Eastern philosophies like Taoism, Buddhism and Vedanta
understand that extreme poverty is the flip side or shadow of extreme wealth.
Polar opposites arise from each other, and the solution to gross disparities is
to aim for the middle rather than the extremes. Thus egalitarian socialism and
democracy are in tune with these philosophies, while capitalism and fascism are
not. The former unite, while the latter divide. It isn’t that in actual life
everything has to be identical, but the direction should be toward equality of
opportunity. Equality is not the same as uniformity, by the way. The Gita
presents a three dimensional, integral philosophy, in contradistinction to the
linear Western models that imagine that by rushing ahead you drag everybody
else along with you. Or, as with fascism, that you drive them ahead of you like
Hyde, in his book The Gift, makes an
eloquent case for the circulation of wealth as the guarantor of community well
being. This was taken to ludicrous levels of excessive gifting by some of our
ancestors. Hoarding is like putting wealth in a deep freeze. It is often done
for reasons of psychological insecurity, but in this verse it is described as
being used for sensual pleasures. Huge houses filled with fancy furniture are a
typical symptom in our modern day. Nice… but cold and dead, when you come right
down to it. Most of the rooms are vacant most of the time, symbolizing
Krishna’s point exactly. There’s nobody home.
today has been gained by me; this particular end I will get; this wealth is
mine, and that wealth also will be mine;
the words of Yama, Death, in the Katha Upanishad 2.6, Shankara’s translation:
“The other world never rises before the careless child deluded by the delusion
of wealth. This is the world, he thinks, there is no other; thus he falls again
and again under my sway.”
so hard to read these verses without thinking of our current political and
business leaders. The Gita sounds as if it was written this month. The art is
to take these “demonic” attitudes and perform a self-examination to see where
they might be lurking in you, too. Like Hercules battling the hydra, you really
have to keep after selfish attitudes as they continually spring up from the
depths of the vasana seedbed. It does more harm than good to imagine that only other
people embody demonic values and you don’t. It’s a perfect smokescreen for them
to hide behind and stay alive. So always turn the teachings toward yourself.
more we turn to Thomas Merton, who exemplifies the contemplative conscience at
Indeed, the Western contemplative
can say that he feels himself much closer to the Zen monks of ancient Japan
than to the busy and impatient men of the West… who think in terms of money,
power, publicity, machines, business, political advantage, military
strategy—who seek, in a word, the triumphant affirmation of their own will,
their own power, considered as the end for which they exist. Is this not
perhaps the most foolish of all dreams, the most tenacious and damaging of
…The contemplative way requires first of all and above all
renunciation of this obsession with the triumph of the individual or collective
will to power. For this aggressive and self-assertive drive to possess and to
exert power implies a totally different view of reality than that which is seen
when one travels the contemplative way. The aggressive and dominative view of
reality places at the center the individual self with its bodily form, its
feelings and emotions, its appetites and needs, its loves and hates, its
actions and reactions. All these are seen as forming together a basic and
indubitable reality to which everything else must be referred, so that all
other things are also estimated in their individuality, their actions and
reactions, and all the ways in which they impinge upon the interests of the
The world is then seen as a multiplicity of conflicting and
limited beings, all enclosed in the prisons of their own individuality, all
therefore complete in a permanent and vulnerable incompleteness, all seeking to
find a certain completeness by asserting themselves at the expense of others,
dominating and using others. (Faith and
Wilkinson and Kate Pickett have written a book called The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger
(New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2009). Examining health and economic data from
across the globe, they found that the greater the disparity between rich and
poor in a country, the more pronounced are a wide range of problems, including
crime, diminished longevity, teen pregnancy, mental illness, obesity, violence,
and so on. The interesting part is that these affect the entire spectrum, the
well-to-do along with the poor. The perplexing thing is why, after centuries of
evidence and instruction to the contrary, some people continue to be so
strongly motivated by selfishness.
significant amount of spiritual endeavor is motivated by a belief in the
accumulation of merit. If we think of the wealth of this verse as meaning our
personal spiritual accomplishment rather than political or financial gain, we
can “out” our ego in its secret scorekeeping. Most of us have been raised under
a school system obsessed with rating every participant in minute detail, so it
should come as no surprise that this would carry over into our spiritual
striving. Getting that hatha yoga pose just right, following instructions to
the letter, counting beads exactly, and all the rest, can produce the little
bursts of pride we have been trained, like performing seals at the zoo, to work
for. So at the same time as we read these verses as referring to social
arrogance, we can also use them to redirect ourselves toward honest humility.
For instance, whether you struggle or are expert at stretching your muscles,
you are working at the same game. It’s just as wonderful to be a beginner as to
be an adept, so why not be content at every stage? There is not some mystical
moment when you sit in a full lotus that you become enlightened—it’s just a way
to sit. The spiritual ego is gentler than the political ego, but is nonetheless
a serious impediment to the creative intuition that is freed up by the yoga of
we have a similar mindset to the crazed powermongers we profess to despise, we
are subtly reinforcing the attitude we deplore. We have to learn how to live
without the false lures, and perhaps others will learn too, from our example.
It is in our capacity as yogis to add just one more humble and unselfish person
to the total: our self.
enemy has been killed by me; and others I will also kill; I am the Lord; I am
the enjoyer; I have satisfied my ambitions; I am powerful and happy;
now it should be clear that these verses are the secret voice of the ego brought
out in the open. At its most raw, the ego is barbaric and primitive, a hungry
predator, capable of murder. It is even capable of killing itself in order to
maintain its inviolability, in the act known as suicide.
degradation of the world that egotism brings about is to instigate a “survival
of the most ruthless” mentality. Such an attitude breeds insecurity and
paranoia even in the supposed winners, and drives them to link up with similar
types to form a gang or mafia, and the more defined by harsh rules the better.
Curiously, violence is gender-specific to a large degree. As Norman Rush puts
it in his book Mating (1991): “A deep
calm drenches the male soul when it feels the persona it inhabits being firmly
screwed into a socket in some iron hierarchy or other, best of all a hierarchy
legitimately about killing.” (224)
fair in love and war means that to the aggressor there are no holds barred, no
binding laws outside those of loyalty to your own team. Truth and justice don’t
matter. The aggressive approach fails precisely due to dissociation from what
is true or fair. The venting of egoistic emotions is a secondary failing.
a personal scale, we “kill” our enemies in a number of psychological ways: we
ignore them, we sweep their claims aside, we ridicule them, all so we can feel
secure on our perch in a fool’s paradise. We identify our happiness with the
satisfaction of our ambitions, which is exactly the goal-oriented lifestyle
Krishna aims to correct with his advice to not focus on the fruits of action.
Unitive action does not need goading. In fact, it requires the opposite: the
quieting down of external prompts in order to balance the mind and open the
door to the internal flow of creativity.
15&16) I am rich and well-born; who else is like me? I
will sacrifice; I will give; I will rejoice”—thus deluded by ignorance
maddened by many thoughts, caught within the snare of
confusing values, addicted to lustful gratifications, they fall into an unclean
possible, Krishna’s excoriation of selfish delusions is becoming even more
intense as we move toward the climax of the chapter. In fact he is making a
very subtle point, where the subtle arrogance lurking in self-satisfaction is
shown to be a form of spiritual derangement, even when it is cloaked in the
guise of generosity.
time we pin down a fixed description of ourself, we substitute an abstraction
for the flow of life, and invariably this is done in service of our self-image,
as padding for our persona. The result is a break with inner harmony leading to
a split in the psyche. This is among the most prevalent and least criticized
types of spiritual egoism, partly because it doesn’t seem it should have such a
profound effect on our wellbeing. Yet it does.
religious attitude that material wealth is a sign of God’s favor, along with
its widespread evolutes in which social status is placed above psychological
stature, is roundly and unequivocally blasted in this verse. The cruelty and
degradedness of aristocracies has been one of the major obstacles to progress
of the human race, and the corruption of the wealthy in history is legendary. Yet
the appeal of profits never seems to wear off. Monetary goals are concrete;
spiritual probes are mysterious and abstract. Therefore they are much more
soothing to the anxious soul.
meaning of wealth here covers the whole range from material to spiritual, with
the latter of particular interest to truth seekers. How many gurus have gone
down in flames after their operations became big business and they were
surrounded by crowds of admirers? Not all, but many. Being attuned to the
freedom of the Absolute, it is tempting to believe that anything we do is
permissible. It is so easy to disrupt the harmony of any situation, we should
always allow for the possibility. Letting go is an inward gesture, not an
excuse to go crazy, even in the name of wisdom.
Bible agrees with Krishna here. Job, 32:9 reads: “Great men are not always
wise.” You can say that again! We also know that “Power corrupts; absolute
power corrupts absolutely,” even when its mantle is donned in the name of the
common good. And this is true on a humble, individual level as well as in the
recognized halls of the rich and powerful: to our own egos, we are the
greatest. On top of that, the smug satisfaction we are likely to feel when we
believe we’ve gotten everything just right is bound to put a damper on our
freedom of spirit, even if we don’t outwardly profess our superiority.
we pay lip service to happiness being independent of worldly circumstances,
until we truly tap into the bliss of the Absolute running in our veins, the
principle remains hypothetical. It is possible to spend a whole lifetime
seeking financial security, and never, ever feel secure. That’s because true solidity
in life is a psychological condition, not a material one. Yet few are the
voices that speak up for such a commonsense attitude.
coincidentally, the ordinary egotistical attitude toward selfless service is
unrelentingly denounced by Krishna here. Our very posture of selflessness is
self-motivated: we are selfless for selfish reasons, like those who do good
works with the expectation of securing a reserved seat in heaven, or even simply
“changing the world.” We are consciously directing our kindness, and adopting
some sort of martyr complex around it, instead of living it unitively. Such a
dualistic attitude is the reason most revolutions, whether of consciousness or
politics, transform from idealism into repressive pragmatism.
takes a first class guru to root out these sly types of hypocrisy, which fool
most of the people most of the time. True unselfishness is not defined by any
actions; it stems from knowing all beings as ultimately rooted in the Absolute.
If we believe we are helping those less fortunate, then we don’t understand
of the delusions mentioned in this rant by Krishna have their origin in not being
attuned to the Absolute as a unitive principle within all creation. The
Absolute is seated in the heart of all (X, 20), and only if we open our heart
to it will we grow out of the miasma of miserable attitudes listed in this
chapter. Traumatized humans insist on toughness as essential to their self
defense, but being open-hearted does not mean being either soft-headed or overly
tender-hearted. It should never preclude expertise in action, and it is aware
in the broadest sense of the word. By contrast, tough minded hard-heartedness
is a kind of willful ignorance, intentionally blocking awareness of the
condition of the Other. We arbitrarily decree that the world is mindless and
unfeeling so that we can abuse it without a twinge of conscience.
line production of meat animals for food is a perfect example of
hard-heartedness in practice. The creatures are kept in conditions that can only
be described as torture. Confined in cages little bigger than their bodies for
their entire lives, they cannot move, much less perform normal activities. They
are clearly aware of their predicament, and it drives them insane. Their environment
is toxic with waste and barely controlled diseases, and the air is perfused
with the tension from their tormented souls. To be in contact with them you
have to shut out any compassionate thoughts, lest their suffering overwhelm your
mind’s defenses. The consumer, who is only aware of the neatly packaged end
product, is free to eat it in “blissful” ignorance. If they had to endure
similar conditions for even one day—an eternity of hell for sure—they could
never again close the door of their minds to the horror of it. The corrupt
system depends on maintaining a general ignorance and propagating a veneer of
respectability. As a good friend of mine always says to me, “If I had to kill
my own meat, I’d become a vegetarian.”
is but one way we hate the Absolute in other’s bodies. All creatures are
sentient. They all love and cherish their freedom, however limited by their
evolutionary development it may be. If we must eat them, at least they should
be allowed to enjoy life on their own terms for a period, followed by a quick
dispatch. The so-called rationalization that cruelty to animals is dictated by
economic necessity is pure self-serving propaganda. Sure, it’s cheaper, but
that kind of rationalization should never ever be on the list of options. Part
of the price we have to pay for everything we do is to keep it sane, in tune
with sustainability and universal kindness.
our politics is not much different than the factory-farming of animals. If the
populace was aware of the disgusting crimes regularly committed behind the
veneer of patriotism, it would be so nauseated it would never stomach it. We
are served prepackaged and sanitized sound bites just the way we buy our hot
dogs and hamburgers, and we consume them likewise in complacent and intentional
ignorance. Anyone who does so is fully deserving of Krishna’s scorn.
Spirituality means waking up. Sleepwalking is for the living dead, the zombies.
perversely immobile, filled with pride and intoxication of wealth, they perform
sacrifices ostentatiously, which are only nominal sacrifices, not conforming to
and political leaders who titillate their followers’ sadistic tendencies in
order to make their church or private coffers grow are among the few true
“sinners” of this world, according to Krishna. It’s amazing and dismaying how
successful they are year after year, century after century. So special thanks
to those spiritual leaders who are brave enough to stand up to the hypocrites
within their own faith, and provide an option for those who want to learn to
love rather than hate.
are an easy mark for condemnation, with their ostentatious prostrations at the
feet of a jealous and myopic god, but have you heard American talk radio in the
twenty-first century? It is tailor made for this chapter of the Gita.
Self-righteousness trumps all sensibility. There is a vicious bullying
mentality that is completely closed to all discourse. “Monsters from the id”
are unleashed at all creatures that fail to subscribe to a chosen narrow view,
empowered by the belief that might makes right. It must have some appeal to a
vengeful strain carried over from thwarted childhood egos. The arguments
generally break down into thinly veiled name-calling. The power of those held
in its thrall is undeniable, resembling a psychic hurricane, or better yet a
tornado, swirling in tight circles like a frenzied dog chasing its tail. Such
storms cannot be stopped in an instant, they have to gradually lose their vigor
through lack of the input of additional energy. They are stoked by money energy
from smirking behind-scenes string pullers, which encourages the continuation
of the ranting and raving, as much as by reinforcement of fellow cave dwellers.
Such shows, which appear to have a popular following, are a projection into the
public realm of the secret vicious lusts harbored by frustrated and beaten down
human beings. Thus the value of ostentatious sacrifice: it brings a flood tide
of sycophants swarming to your cause.
W. B. Yeats summed up this state of affairs most ably in 1920, in his famous
poem The Second Coming, which includes:
Things fall apart; the centre
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed,
The ceremony of innocence is
The best lack all conviction,
while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Yeats’ anarchy is psychological, clothed in righteous garb,
and not necessarily a political ideology.
almost uncanny prescience is revealed by the following excerpt from Meetings With Remarkable
Men, by G. I.
Gurdjieff (Arkana, 1985). Relating to print journalism in the age before
television and talk radio took it even lower, Gurdjieff quotes an “intelligent,
Owing to this unprincipled daily
literature, the thinking function of people has come to be even further
separated from their individuality; and thereby conscience, which was
occasionally awakened in them, has now ceased to participate in this thinking
of theirs. They are thus deprived of those factors which formerly gave people a
more or less tolerable life, if only in respect of their mutual relations.
To our common misfortune, this journalistic literature,
which is becoming more widespread in the life of people year by year, weakens
the already weakened mind of man still more by laying it open without
resistance to all kinds of deceit and delusion, and leads it astray from
relatively well-founded thinking, thus stimulating in people, instead of sane
judgement, various unworthy properties, such as incredulity, indignation, fear,
false shame, hypocrisy, pride and so on and so forth. (18-19)
aren’t people acutely embarrassed by buying into these ridiculous pretenses,
instead of being so easily drawn in? A wise yogi takes care to dispassionately
assess every claim thrown at them, keeping in mind the myth of the lemmings,
who are supposed to plunge in a maddened peer group off a cliff to their death,
or stampeding cattle that, even as they realize their danger at the last
moment, are unable to stop because the force of the herd behind pushes them
over the brink.
there is a very subtle principle at the heart of this electrical storm. A major
implication of the teaching is to not allow ourselves to be swept up in fads or
a mob mentality, which humans have a powerful tendency to do. It is not a sin
to feel compelled by our surroundings, but indulging in its dictates is bound
to get us into trouble.
to egoism, force, insolence, lust, and anger, these envious ones hate Me [the
Absolute] in their own and other’s bodies.
now sums up the core principle in everything he’s said: since we are all the
Absolute in essence, if we hate anything we are hating the Absolute, which has
assumed that form for the moment. This doesn’t mean we have to countenance
misdeeds, obviously. No one can be more than a partial representation of
perfection, so we all have room for improvement. But hating something doesn’t
lead it to light; it makes its excesses more extreme. By comprehending the
whole context we can discern how to be helpful, instead of polarizing against a
supposed enemy and giving it energy. The Gita’s advice is to catch ourselves in
the act of indulging in powerful emotions like these and mitigate them with an
infusion of wisdom.
of us struggle with the emotions on this list at times. In actual situations
our spiritual self can make excellent decisions that perfectly accord with a
problem, but we block that ability by having preconceived ideas about “what to
do” when certain of our buttons are pushed. In preparing to meet dangerous
situations we must not commit ourselves to fixed plans and programs, but
instead learn to listen to the “still small voice” within. What we decided in
the past about how to act is not guaranteed to match the present, but we apply
it anyway, often with disastrous results. The solution is to throw away the
Golden Disc of imagery, the preprogrammed plan, and trust that we will meet
contingencies with our best effort as they occur. This is equivalent to the
Biblical injunction, “Take ye no thought how or what thing ye shall answer, or
what ye shall say: For the Holy Ghost shall teach you in the same hour what ye
ought to say.” (Luke 12. 11-12) In old-fashioned language, Jesus is
recommending that we don’t plan our words and actions in advance, but stay
fluid and respond according to the Holy Spirit of the moment.
epitome of this line of thought is the motto: “Don’t premeditate—meditate.”
is always shocking how powerful hate is, a portal through which all our
thwarted hopes and desires, turned to acid, are flung upon the outside world.
It is strengthened by toxic religious beliefs that boil down to the insistence
that we must reject the world—and even ourselves—to know God. Krishna assures
us here and elsewhere that God is in everything, and rejection is not only
unnecessary, it is a failed policy, impossible, and a shameful affront to the
wonder of creation.
along the line we have been trained to believe that black is white, or, with
Orwell, war is peace, freedom is slavery, and ignorance is strength.
may have already told the story how as a child I was beaten up several times by
a bully in my school. His technique was to say as he was punching me, “I’m not
doin’ anything. (whap) I’m not hittin’ ya. (thunk) I ain’t hittin’ ya. (crack)
I’m a nice guy (smash).” It added a psychological attack to the physical and
was very effective, because as the victim gaped in disbelief at the obvious
lies, we’d let our guard down for the next haymaker. It’s politely called a
snow job. Observing the American political scene reminds me of this technique,
except the media provides the snow for the corporate scalawags. While
economically raping and pillaging, stealing everything not nailed down or
otherwise, these morally blind institutions wrap themselves in the flag,
insisting that they and only those who agree with them are patriotic. Naysayers
are shouted down, bullied. (Public pundit Ann Coulter has openly suggested that
liberals should be tortured, for instance.) It works as well for them as my
schoolyard bully’s disinformation campaign worked for him. While honest folk
are sifting through the lies and trying to reestablish equilibrium, the
criminals are busy cleaning out the house. As they eviscerate their own
country, along with the rest of the world, they are even cheered on by many of
their victims who consider themselves patriots too. They’re convinced their
very self-definition is connected with the greed mongers: “If I’m a patriot,
and my president tells me what he’s doing is patriotic, I guess I have to
support him. If I didn’t I wouldn’t be a patriot.”
more than the average number of naked invasions of sovereign countries by more
powerful neighbors have occurred, though it’s certainly nothing new. It’s
mandatory that the attacks are accompanied by claims of “self-defense” and
protestations of innocence, necessity, and so on. The claims throw a fog over
the obvious, that they are invading and terrorizing due to their own unrestrained
greed, and any pretence will do. Hired “pundits” spend their days justifying
these heinous acts.
religions take this to another level, metaphysically speaking. Followers are
diverted from the valuable advice and sensibility at the root of their religion
to simple cheerleading for their own “team.” All their authentic
energies—monetary and political as well as spiritual—are channeled through the
religion’s infrastructure. The original teachings are recrafted for every generation
to maintain the bondage to false prophets and real profits, until the lies are
piled so deep it is nearly impossible to sort them out. If anyone dares to
entertain any doubts they are obviously not a true believer, and should be
energetically corrected or expelled from the group.
political or religious, partisanship requires a dualistic attitude, an enemy
“other” who you can exploit or attack. Since this other is just as much the
Absolute as the home team, this amounts to hating God in other’s bodies. From an
elevated perspective, you are hating and exploiting yourself. Rest assured you
will not be hearing that from the pulpit!
hating the body is taken literally. Puritanical believers consider the body and
its miraculously ingenious functions to be a desecration of the purity of God.
They actively strive to suppress not only their own awareness and activities,
but those of everyone else as well. The psychological process by which natural
urges and curiosities are first repressed and eventually transformed into lustful
anti-lust, is well known. People then lash out at precisely what they secretly
crave. The hidden message is “I’ve been denied my pleasure, so you can’t have
any either!” Such seriously unbalanced attitudes are thoroughly opposed to the
yogic state. Repression is not even transactionally functional, as those who
indulge in it are famous for sinning in secret. We can read the veiled lusts of
the puritans in exactly what they complain about. Shakespeare put this wisdom
whimsically in Hamlet: “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.”
list of hypocritical actions of the self-righteous is too extensive to even
begin to enumerate. Once a person sets out to examine life with an unrepressed
eye, hypocrisy stands out all over the place. But there is little to be gained
by being shocked by it. The lesson we should draw is to be honest with
ourselves, and tolerant of other people’s actions to the degree they do minimal
damage. Our attitudes can be simple and direct: cause no harm. Be kind. Don’t
be sucked in by lies.
all, we should resist exhortations to physically punish and brainwash children.
Once the natural, innate joy of children is beaten out of them, they grow up to
be the next generation of abusers. They cannot tolerate seeing in others the happiness
they have been denied, so they lash out at it wherever it appears. Again, the
cure is to examine those urges if we have them, trace them to our thwarted
natural instincts, and bathe them in kindness and care. Call them out into the
open and express them. We’re talking about joy here. It’s not evil, no matter
how much rationalization is brought to bear to convince us it is. Common sense
should carry the day.
cruel haters in the world, worst of men, I hurl unceasingly even into the
degraded wombs of demons;
the surface this sounds like the ancient belief that people are reincarnated
according to their virtues, and that’s all right as far as it goes. The idea
that virtuous and yogically inclined people attain better future lives was
examined earlier (VI, 40-45). Here we have the opposite view: those who do harm
are born as lowlife humans, or animals, or insects, or demons even, depending
on how bad they are. It’s very hard to work your way back up once you cycle
down and become increasingly entangled in necessity.
should be an admirable scheme to insure that everyone is good all the time, but
in practice it doesn’t work any better than the other arbitrary moral codes
scattered about, abstract threats of jail or hell or whatever. That’s because
in most people the roots of hatred lie much deeper than their conscious
attitudes. The brain models its concepts of future pain based on the punishment
it has received during its development. I suppose that’s why many caring
parents are eager to provide suitably terrifying examples for their children to
contemplate. Many children will rebel against such treatment sooner or later,
while others employ the strategy of becoming complacent and well behaved.
causes and cures of antisocial behavior are endlessly debated by psychologists
and physicians, and it’s a worthwhile subject to look into. Yoga practice is an
efficient technique for exposing our psychic roots to the light of
consciousness, where they can be somewhat tamed. Then we don’t have to either
accept or reject those punitive pressures.
take rebirth as symbolizing the repetition of thoughts or behaviors and the way
they shape future potentials in the present life, rather than simple bodily reincarnation
after death. Krishna has already given the Gita’s revaluation of reincarnation
as the Absolute incarnating repeatedly. Karma thus passes from one person to
another in a very complex fashion. In the modern world we now interpret
reincarnation in terms of genetic transference.
is very freeing to imagine that our consciousness is eternal, and that the
universe would not have bothered to evolve such an amazing capacity just to
discard it. In that sense the idea of reincarnation should inspire us to care about
life in every sense. On the flip side, if the idea of reincarnation is used to
postpone our evolutionary efforts until later—which is a far more common
attitude, I’m afraid—then the concept is toxic. We can see that the former belief
is unitive while the latter is dualistic. Dualism divorces us from life, so in
place of life after death we get death before death. Whatever their beliefs may
be, yogis examine them closely to preserve the beneficial ones and discard the
encumbrances. Dying prematurely is something we definitely want to avoid.
speaking, what we have as the “wombs of demons” are nightmare hell states of
the mind. By causing harm to those around us we push ourselves deeper and
deeper into misery, which causes us to lash out furiously, which produces more
inner blindness, and so on, in an endless cycle. Hell, like heaven, is
available to us right now. They are psychological states, not geographical
it be reiterated that no angry God is actually throwing sinners into any
inferno? This is a metaphor, but a powerfully worded cautionary statement
nonetheless. Because of the reciprocal nature of the universe, selfish actions
based on lust, hate or greed end up debasing the perpetrator. Once the descent
into untruth or separation from reality has begun in earnest, it tends to
compound and reinforce itself, making escape ever more difficult. In effect we
are hurling ourselves into the inferno, but saying it that way wouldn’t have
quite the poetic potency of Krishna’s warning as it stands.
the collapse of immensely powerful governments from corruption is an apt object
lesson. Secrecy and deception rule the day, and so whoever wants to play the
game becomes caught up in a web of total mistrust and suspicion. The facts must
be suppressed at all costs! You are only as secure as the good faith of the
other criminals conspiring with you warrants. When the few remaining honest participants
are killed or driven away, what remains is a wasteland to be looted in which
the players who stop to repent become the carrion for the next wave.
Accompanying the parasitism, innocent bystanders are swept into a punitive
judicial black hole from which there is no escape, no matter how hard they try.
It’s hard to imagine a more torturous hell world than that!
story that often comes to mind is of a friend’s grandmother, an old hard-bitten
Texas fundamentalist who lived her whole life in absolute certainty about
JEEsus and where she was headed after death. You know the type: bitter, suspicious,
anger and hatred boiling out all the time, her only pleasure picturing you
burning in hell. Her “cruel hatred of the world” was an obvious defensive
shield to everyone outside that particular behavioral sink. But a couple of
weeks before her death, as her demise loomed up, all her false beliefs
evaporated and she was left totally unprepared and terrified. She finished her
life miserably bemoaning her fate, with no truth anywhere to hold on to. If she
had had a viable relationship with a proper guru during her life, they would
not have permitted her to “lay up her treasures where moth and rust doth
corrupt,” to paraphrase the guru she paid lip service to. Instead, together
they would have explored the origins of her hatred, lanced the boils, and taught
her how to bring heavenly love onto the earth. Then she might have passed away
a demonic womb, deluded by birth after birth, not reaching Me, O Son of Kunti,
they go to the lowest state.
completes the sentence of the previous verse. Once we are caught in a miserable
state of mind due to dualistic thinking, delusory ideas arise one after
another. Because the deluded one is out of tune with the Absolute (“not
reaching Me”), projections of illusory thoughts appear before the mind’s eye,
reinforcing the darkness. Such negative cycles lead to a rock bottom of outright
insanity if there is no mitigating concept of unity. Examples are even more
bountiful today than they were in ancient times, so the reader can picture them
without assistance. They are ubiquitous.
Law of Karma is not hoodwinked by clever dissimulation. As the Guru of Avon
once put it, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Our ideas have to
be brought in line with reality, lest we lose touch with it and sink to a
perpetually dismal state. Author Philip K. Dick provided an excellent
definition of reality, by the way: “Reality is that which, when you stop
believing in it, doesn’t go away.”
lowest state” sounds like the Semitic hell, but it does not reference any
imaginary realm. Thoughts lead us either in ascending or descending dialectics,
either freeing or binding us depending on how we put disparate elements
together. For example, always blaming others for perceived ills exacerbates
problems and diverts attention away from their solution, whereas accepting a
measure of responsibility and exploring realistic causes leads to their
amelioration. This is quite possibly the most important spiritual idea of all;
one which the ego resists with both great passion and wily sneakiness. Our very
first step should be to turn the arrow of interest away from the warped
reflections of the outside world and back into our own psyche.
can start with this chapter itself, which appears to be referring to all those other
bad people out there. Let them study the Gita in their own time! This is for
us. We too are deluded by our beliefs, and they continually resurface to trap
us in a loveless, sterile mentality. We are cut off from the Republic of Heaven
within only because we are looking the other way. We need to reshape the
“demonic womb” of our ideas so we can give birth to beauty rather than
ugliness. A simple change (okay, not so simple, but doable) converts a demonic
womb into a divine one.
is the infernal gate, destructive of the Self: lust, hate and greed; therefore
these three should be avoided.
the One Beyond has been sighted, negative emotions fall away of their own
accord. In the meantime, we can intelligently grasp how binding they are and intentionally
strive to avoid their grip. If this is done without conscious intent, we run
the risk of repressing them and driving them underground, so a more
thoroughgoing solution is to be sought. Rightly understood, it is possible to
use our negative emotions to energize the search for the harmony of the Absolute.
and greed, often but not necessarily impelled by hatred and anger, are at the
heart of the profit motive, the cornerstone of free market capitalism as well
as selfish individualism. Profit is unarguably a legitimate motivating force,
as are hunger and thirst, but they are all oriented to basic necessities.
Satisfying basic needs can exacerbate competition at the expense of community.
The results of basing our philosophy on this lowest common denominator are
plain to see on every hand. As wealth moves from the community into private
hands and disappears from view, the social world begins to crumble, and the
less fortunate are forced to fight over the crumbs. Spirituality by any
meaningful definition raises its sights above necessity to draw its motivations
from more subtle sources. Healing the sick, self-realization, community
involvement and artistic expression are but a few of the more noble aspirations
that have attracted spiritual folk from the beginning.
top of this, throughout civilized history the brightest intellects that have
led humankind forward have been given various forms of financial aid to allow
them as much freedom from necessity as possible. Whether in monasteries, think tanks,
universities, or simply patronized by royalty or charitable foundations, they
have been bequeathed support to concentrate on matters of unusual importance. Because
the best ideas are not necessarily money makers, being forced to compete for
profits in the marketplace would have squandered their talents. Happily, humans
have not always been so short sighted and materially-oriented as they are in
the present, though that tendency is by no means new. Society would be much
better served by fostering the natural interests of people rather than removing
all supports just because some small number are freeloaders. To spite the
laziest (or gentlest) among us we are cutting off the best and brightest.
could just as easily employ an army of creative problem solvers as the one it
maintains of killers and destroyers, and at enlightened moments in history it
is a dialectic mean between a person being supported by the community to probe
deeply into matters of the mind and spirit, and a representative of religion
who is merely faking it to extract money from the faithful. The great value in
electing someone to probe into the Unknown is similar to sending a political
representative to the distant seat of government, but in both cases they have
to be worthy of our faith. In a global world teeming with people it is very
hard to know who to trust, but that doesn’t mean we should abandon being
trusting, only that we should be extra careful where we place it. At the very
least we can steer clear of lust, hate and greed, which are justly famous for
luring us away from common sense.
man who has abandoned these three gates of darkness observes what conduces to
his progress, and thereafter attains to the Supreme Path.
we see the simple truth that all we have to do to begin to regain awareness of
our unity with the Absolute is to stop deluding ourself. The Absolute is our
very nature, but we have forgotten who we are in our scheming, and adopted a
very poor substitute. As soon as we stop feeding our false persona, we can
sense a steady rain of beneficial influences pouring into us, which will gently
direct us to progress back toward contact with our inner Source. The Supreme
Path is simply the one we take through our life while directly connected with
the Absolute. We are either wandering lost in a darkened wood, or joyously stepping
out with a bright inner light to inform our steps.
of us has an inner guru that can guide us to learn and grow in the way that
suits us best. Others should be welcome to offer suggestions based on their own
experience—which is the ever hopeful purpose of religion at its best—but we
need to discover our own truths to make them fully real. In principle the outer
guru and the inner guide are one and the same. Outer and inner are yet another
duality that effortlessly dissipates as the unitive vision begins to hold sway.
another angle, when we act selfishly we block the “radio waves from the center
of the universe” (or the core of our being) that can illuminate our path and
conduce to our progress. It’s a simple matter of screening: attention to one
reduces awareness of the other. Which way to turn should be apparent to us once
we know about this. We have to listen to the promptings of our emotions, and
then sort out the wheat from the chaff, the legitimate from the egotistical.
Lehrer puts this same idea in more scientific terms:
Dopamine neurons automatically
detect the subtle patterns that we would otherwise fail to notice; they
assimilate all the data that we can’t consciously comprehend. And then, once
they come up with a set of refined predictions about how the world works, they
translate these predictions into emotions…. These wise yet inexplicable
feelings are an essential part of the decision-making process. Even when we
think we know nothing, our brains know something. That’s what our feelings are
trying to tell us. (48)
Science is also coming to see how we routinely subvert our
inner intelligence. Citing a study of punditry done by Philip Tetlock of UC
Berkeley, Lehrer quotes his conclusion:
Tetlock writes, “The dominant
danger [for pundits] remains hubris, the vice of closed-mindedness, of
dismissing dissonant possibilities too quickly.” Even though practically all
the professionals in Tetlock’s study claimed that they were dispassionately
analyzing the evidence—everybody wanted to be rational—many of them were
actually indulging in some conveniently cultivated ignorance. Instead of
encouraging the arguments inside their heads [which presented contrary
evidence], these pundits settled on answers, and then came up with reasons to
justify those answers. They were, as Tetlock put it, “prisoners of their
a mindful observer needs to be understood correctly, as mindfulness can as
easily interrupt emotional input as draw our intention to it. One trick is to
be non-judgmental. The world is becoming full of video cameras and computer
programs watching our every move, and we are becoming very self-conscious about
our actions in public. Even without that we have the insidious teachings of
religion that lead us to believe we are being continuously monitored by “gods.”
The self-consciousness this engenders causes us to deliberate our actions
rather than act freely, which takes the spontaneity out of living. We want to
be free to act, as long as our actions are non-harmful and intelligently considered.
If we become an overly critical observer of ourself, we will be caught in a
joy- and spirit-killing state of mind.
idea of becoming a detached observer is to break the grip of chaotically impulsive
action grounded in unnecessary desires that we are prone to as neophytes. Once
that has happened, we should move into unitive action, where you immerse
yourself in what you are doing, totally, without reservations or second
thoughts. Then the observer and the observed merge into a harmonious state of
pure action, of living a pure event, where there is no more need for inhibitingly
who, having abandoned the guiding principles of scripture, acts under the
promptings of desire—he cannot attain perfection, nor happiness, nor the
all the training to become free and expert in expressing our inner potentials,
this pair of verses extolling scripture comes as a bit of a shock, seemingly
out of step with the rest of the Gita. Several factors mitigate this initial
of all, keep in mind that the Gita has high standards for a work to be
considered scriptural. Most of the tawdry and confusing texts of obligatory
rituals that we call scripture fall far outside its definition. Only the finest
distillation of wisdom rates this nomenclature. It goes without saying that
many writings—or ravings—widely regarded as scriptural are in fact ghastly,
hate-filled garbage. A wise person will never unquestioningly accept the
opinions of others about such matters, but will doubt even the most hallowed
basted in their childhood with religious injunctions often think of scriptures
as a kind of strict penal code before which everyone must bow down in terror
lest they be subjected to eternal torment. This is definitely part of the
problem rather than part of the solution! Moreover, the overt or implied threat
of hell prompts the believer to act on the basis of desire: the desire to avoid
eternal punishment. This is contrary to the neutrality necessary for true
stability and happiness.
Gita was composed in a time when there were very few books, and they were not so
much conglomerations of rules as compilations of inspired poetic insight for
how to deport oneself through life. Such genuine scriptures help their votaries
to be free, and rely on intelligence rather then fear to accomplish their
goals. Freedom from fear, as we have seen, brings happiness in the present,
obviating the need to long for incarnation in future heaven worlds.
the scripture is your authority in deciding what should and should not be done.
Understanding what is indicated for guidance in scripture, you should do work
much thought, Nataraja Guru began his magnum opus, An Integrated Science of the Absolute, with the simple sentence
“Science seeks certitude.” Certitude is as mysterious as truth, and like it, is
susceptible to misplaced enthusiasm. We can feel quite certain about things
that are not at all true; in fact, history contains an unending litany of
people being motivated by certainty about matters that had tragic consequences
and which seem ludicrous in retrospect. The contemplative must be cautious
about the soaring sense of inner certainty and make sure it has a reasonable
basis. Although certitude is exactly what is sought, it must be doubted and
questioned, and held up to comparison with the accepted standards of wise
predecessors. Only if it matches those guidelines can it be considered
legitimate. As Mark Twain said, “It ain't what you don't know that gets you
into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so.”
Gita is returning to solid ground after exploring the most sublime reaches of
human potential, preparing the student to reenter the actual world. Pure
spiritual intuition does not avail in all circumstances except in the rarest of
cases; for the majority of us—those who plan to maintain a measure of connection
with society—there should be external guidance available. While an enlightened
guru is an ideal guide, readily available scriptures fill that role for most
people most of the time.
dilemma of whether to surrender to outside advice or one’s inner promptings is
perennial, that is to say eternal. There is no hard and fast answer for it. We
have to enlist all our resources all the time in order to be on the safe side.
often even the wisest person will be puzzled as to the right course of action.
Rather than being led astray by the persuasive arguments of someone with a
vested interest, not excepting one’s own ego, the neutral wisdom of a scripture
may offer superior advice. At least advice worth considering. The ego can be
very convincing in rationalizing an unwise course of action. By comparing our
inner promptings with a widely admired hypothesis, we can be assured that the
desire is legitimate and beneficial rather than merely selfishness masquerading
the most important teachings of the Gita as a whole, scripture would have to be
considered a valuable adjunct to an intuitive connection with one’s true inner
nature, one’s dharma.
can’t help but think that the Gita may be offering itself as an eminently wise
scripture to be attended to. While we are aware of Godel’s second incompleteness
theorem, which asserts that systems asserting their own consistency are
inconsistent, we can bring our own judgment to bear as well. The Gita most
definitely provides ample encouragement for a penetrating and open-ended
excursion into the nature of reality. It doesn’t have to blow its own horn. Sipping
its sublime nectar is convincing enough.