Swami Paramananda Saraswati
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THE BHAGAVAD GITA
The Gita, as the Bhagavad Gita is commonly known, is only a fragment of the epic Mahabharata, but its 18 chapters, totaling 700 two-line verses, have deservedly received more attention than the remainder of this great epic. Through most of the epic, Lord Krsna kept his divine nature concealed; the work consists of narrative with philosophical passages here and there. But in the Gita, which was spoken on the eve of the great battle of the epic, Lord Krsna revealed His divinity to Arjuna and communicated His supreme wisdom to him.
The first chapter opens with the naming of the principal combatants. Any warrior of that time who was anybody was on one side or the other. Then the conches were blown and the battle cry sounded. Lord Krsna's role in the battle was to drive the chariot of Arjuna, the mighty archer. Arjuna asked Krsna to position his chariot between the two armies so he may see who's in the opposing forces. Krsna drove the chariot as Arjuna had requested and Arjuna was aghast at what he saw, for relatives of every description and teachers and friends as well, stood facing each other, ready to engage in deadly combat. Arjuna began expressing his reservations to Krsna. First he questioned the use of a victory which would mean killing his cousins, the very people for whose sake he desired victory. Then he bemoaned the evils of the destruction of a family, for destruction of a family leads to corruption of their women, from which follows mixture of caste, termination of the family dharma, including offerings to the ancestors, and as a consequence, all wind up in Hell. Dharma is a complex word used in many different senses throughout the Gita. Here it simply refers to religious practices. Its further meanings are religious doctrines, duty, righteousness, inner nature or simply what a given being ought to be. As the chapter closes, after saying that killing his kinsmen for the sake of a kingdom would be a grave sin, Arjuna dropped his bow and slumped down in the chariot.
As the second chapter opens, Lord Krsna was in a fix. Without recounting the plot of the epic, it suffices to say that the battle was no ordinary family feud, but a struggle between the forces of darkness and the forces of light. In His divine plan Krsna had assembled them all on one battlefield but on the eve of the battle, His principal instrument for victory of the side of righteousness was refusing to participate. Krsna first tried to chide Arjuna by calling him unmanly and weakhearted, and telling him to "get up and fight".
Arjuna's arguments about the destruction of a family, were specious. His cousins on the opposing side had been violating the family dharma and the ultimate victory of his side led to its restoration. In the second chapter Arjuna put forth a different argument. In the opposing army were not only his evil cousins but many virtuous warriors who, to honor their commitments, were fighting along side them, including Arjuna's very own teachers. He stated that teachers must be revered, not slain and that he was unsure whether it would be better if his side or the opposing forces were victorious. He complained that he was in confusion about his dharma, here meaning duty, asked Krsna to tell him definitively what would be best for him, said that he was His disciple and took refuge with Him.
At this point, Arjuna knew Krsna only as a wise friend and advisor, not as the Lord of the Universe. Nevertheless, he had taken refuge with Him and Krsna was obliged to instruct him as requested. He began by telling Arjuna that although his arguments were cogent, he was grieving for those for whom he shouldn't mourn. He went on to discuss the indestructibility of the soul.
"The unreal never exists;
the real never fails to exist..." (II,16)
"Just as a man discards
worn out clothes and dons new ones,
The soul discards worn out bodies
and assumes new ones." (II,22)
"Weapons cannot cut it;
fire cannot burn it;
Water cannot wet it;
air cannot dry it." (II,23)
The last verse says that the soul is unaffected by any of the worldly elements. Anyone who thinks himself to be either "the killer or the killed", is in delusion. Thus, from this absolute point of view, Arjuna should have no regrets about joining the battle.
Krsna next argued from two other points of view. He supposed that dying were real for the soul. In that case, He asserted, "For what is born, death is certain; for what has died, birth is certain" and that again Arjuna should have no qualms about fighting. Then He stated that from the point of view of Arjuna's own dharma, his duty as a member of the warrior caste, he ought to fight, for a righteous battle is as if the doors of Heaven had opened. If he were to die he would win a place in Heaven; if he were victorious, he would enjoy glory on Earth. Thus, to fight would be entering a "no lose" situation. If he refused to fight he would incur sin and would live the rest of his life in ridicule and shame.
After showing, from three points of view, that the outcome of the battle was of no ultimate consequence, Krsna extended His arguments to the doctrine of detached action. First He said,
"With pleasure and pain, loss and gain,
victory and defeat, all made the same,
Join the battle; you'll incur no sin." (II,38)
He broadened this principle to action in general, and advocated renunciation of the fruits of action as a path to liberation.
"The knowing, attuned to this wisdom,
relinquish the fruit of their actions,
And freed from the bondage of rebirth,
reach the state beyond evil." (II,51)
Krsna had praised the man steadfast in wisdom, so Arjuna asked Him to describe such a person. Krsna responded with a beautiful series of pictures of equanimity,
"When, Arjuna, a man relinquishes
all desires of the mind,
And contents himself with his inner soul alone,
he's steadfast in wisdom." (II,55)
"Freed from attraction and aversion
while moving among objects of the senses,
With the senses so restrained,
the self-controlled attain tranquility." (II,64)
The second chapter ends with these verses, but Arjuna hadn't yet comprehended that this steadfast wisdom can be had by a man of action, as well as a monastic recluse. The third chapter opens with him asking,
"Krsna, if wisdom is superior to action,
Why do You enjoin me to perform such gory deeds?" (III,1)
While reading the philosophical passages of the Gita, never forget that it's a treatise on killing cousins.
Krsna talked at length about karma, which so far I've been able to translate simply as "action" but which has additional denotations. In different contexts it may refer to the rituals of the Vedas, to obligatory action or to the aggregate of an individual's prior actions as they affect him in this and future lifetimes. Although karma is penetrating the English language with the last of these meanings, its English usage doesn't reflect its breadth.
Krsna began by stating that the freedom from obligatory action isn't attained by neglecting to perform such actions and that even the body cannot be maintained without action. Here at Dharmanath, a whole complex of tasks are necessary for my well-being. Mostly, I perform them without question, for often the dire consequence of their neglect would be immediate. Nevertheless, at times I find myself procrastinating a simple act, like getting out to urinate. I can be sitting in the tent, holding it in and sinking into a lethargy of partial concentration, when all that's needed is to jump out for a moment to relieve myself, after which I can quickly be back to the warmth inside and be meditating well. However, it's rarely too long before I awaken to my inattentive state and go do it. I've even discovered myself neglecting simpler adjustments. I have caught myself sitting for too long in a drowsy state with cramps developing in my legs, when a slight shift in position is all that's needed in order to resume meditation.
Although I throw myself at enlarging the tunnels with a vengeance, I have problems convincing myself to re-level the tent floor. It's a time-consuming task for I must pack up everything within the tent, move it aside, chop up the old floor, spread a new layer of snow, stamp it down, level it off with snowshoes and then wait a while for the snow to consolidate before repositioning the tent and moving back in. It's an indoor task that must be done about once every seven to ten days, depending in part on the definition of "must"; it invariably seems to come due on the first clear day in a week. After the floor reaches a certain unevenness, sleep becomes poorer, the legs become cramped while sitting, meditation slides, and leveling must be done.
Perhaps the reason why I resent the task is it seems that there should be a way to avoid it, or at least to drastically reduce its frequency. Indeed, in 1984, bringing the larger tent for use inside the cave reduced it from an every-four-day task to a weekly one. Still, I resented it and in 1985, I carried up three new foam pads in the hope of reducing its frequency even further. However, the additional pads added no more than a day to the utility of the floor. I've also entertained the notion that by carefully positioning myself whenever I sit and whenever I sleep, I should be able to make the floor sink uniformly and extend its life. But, this never seems to work and I can easily wind up spending more time thinking of where to sit than meditating. I've attempted various strategies for packing the floor and have tried using snow of every available consistency, but none of this seems to make much difference. Gradually, I'm resigning myself to leveling the floor once a week, but if the Gods were to grant that a single object of my choice be dropped to me from Heaven, I just might request a heavy plank to put under the tent.
Freedom from obligatory tasks comes through their completion, not their neglect, through their performance with neither attachment nor aversion to either them or their results.
"Thus, ever do
what should be done without attachment.
By performing work detachedly,
man reaches the highest state." (III,20)
The path to perfection through detached action is called karma yoga, but the path must be followed without attachment to itself. The true karma yogi is no workoholic for whom constant engagement in action is necessary, even in the guise of social activism, and who falls into a state of depression if he has nothing to do. Rather he just does what he is to do, neither shirking any duty nor hankering after additional ones.
The chapter ends with a question of Arjuna as to why man is drawn to sin in spite of himself. Krsna replied that desire and anger were the causes and told Arjuna to kill the enemy, desire. The Gita admits esoteric interpretations in which the battle is taken to be internal and the foes to be slain are the desires of man. Yet these interpretations shouldn't be construed as negating Krsna's call to Arjuna to fight on the physical battlefield.
Although He had already dropped some hints, at the beginning of the fourth chapter, Krsna made the first earnest declaration of His divine incarnation. He stated that He had instructed the ancient Vivasvata, but Arjuna questioned how He could have taught someone who was born before Him. Krsna responded,
"Both you and I have had many births.
I know them all, but you don't, Arjuna." (IV,5)
"Whenever, Arjuna, dharma has declined
and adharma is in ascendancy,
I, Myself, cause Myself to take birth." (IV,7)
"For the protection of the good
and the destruction of the evil,
I embody Myself in every epoch." (IV,8)
The Sanskrit "yuga", which I've translated as "epoch", refers specifically to certain periods that happen to be multiples of 432,000 years. Even though He may come more than once in an epoch, Krsna doesn't embody Himself all too frequently and when He does, the consequences are often fearsome. So, when I hear people praying for Krsna to come and embody Himself, I suggest they try to straighten things out by themselves before crying for divine intervention.
Krsna returned to the subject of karma.
"Karmanyakarma yah pasyedakarmani ca karma yah
Sa buddhimanmanusyesu sa yuktah krtsnakarmakrt"
(Karmani = in action; akarma = inaction; yah = who; pasyet = would see; akarmani = in inaction; ca = and; karma = action; yah; sa = he; buddhiman = knowing; manusyesu = of men; sa; yuktah = in harmony; krtsna = all; karma; krt = doer)
"Whoever sees the inaction in action
and the action in inaction
Is the knowing one of men and a doer,
in harmony, of all action." (IV,18)
Inaction has its consequences as much as action; man bears as much responsibility for the acts he fails to perform as for the acts he does. The Sanskrit yukta, which stems from the root to join, as does yoga, appears in various contexts throughout the Gita. Rather than its literal translation, "joined", its sense is better expressed by "in harmony" or "attuned".
"Whoever is contented with whatever comes
of its own accord, above duality, beyond emotion,
Unaffected by failure and success,
though he may act, he isn't bound." (IV,22)
The chains of karma, the cause of birth after birth, aren't forged by actions themselves but by attachment or aversion to them and their results. The emotional reaction to your deeds is what creates the tendencies that condition further actions and leads to rebirth. The liberated man acts without internally reacting, and thus is able to perform actions, great and small, without binding himself.
Next, Krsna connected ritual to Brahman.
"Brahmarpanam Brahma havir Brahmagnau Brahmana hutam
Brahmaiva tena gantavya Brahmakarmasamadhina"
(Brahman; arpanam = the process of offering; Brahman; havih = ghee; Brahman; agnau = in the fire; Brahmana = by Brahman; hutam = is offered; Brahman; eva = truly; tena = by him, gantavya = should be attained; Brahman; karma = action; samadhina = absorbed)
"Brahman is the process of offering.
The ghee is Brahman offered by Brahman
into the fire of Brahman.
Brahman should truly be reached by anyone
absorbed in action as Brahman." (IV,24)
The compound, Brahmakarmasamadhina, has a complex of meanings. Recall that samadhi was the final stage of astanga yoga. Thus the three components of this compound are all familiar. Although the verse opens with a contemplation upon fire rituals, karma should be taken as action in general. The compound may be interpreted as "acts for the sake of Brahman" or "realizes that his works are Brahman" or any of a number of valid meanings, all of which have truth and provide the link from bound actions to liberation.
Still, Arjuna wasn't satisfied with being told of the essential sameness of action and inaction, and the interdependence of the paths of knowledge and of action. At the start of the fifth chapter he pressed Krsna to tell him decidedly which is better, performance of action or its renunciation. Once more Krsna declined to give a direct response for He wished Arjuna to understand the interrelationship of the two.
"The same place is reached
by men of contemplation and men of action.
Whoever sees contemplation
and action as one, truly sees." (V,5)
Next, He declared that renunciation of action is difficult to obtain without performance of action and again recommended acting while forsaking the fruit of action. Nevertheless, He went on to describe the man of renunciation who, with the senses under control, "neither acts nor causes others to act".
"Neither elated by the pleasant
nor disturbed by the unpleasant,
With steady intellect, the undeluded knower
of Brahman is affixed to Brahman." (V,20)
"Unattached to external stimuli,
he realizes the bliss of the soul.
With himself through yoga attuned to Brahman,
he attains unfading bliss." (V,21)
The sixth chapter is dedicated specifically to meditation. It even goes so far as to tell how a yogi should arrange his seat for meditation. Here, for the recommended layer of kusa grass, I must substitute foam pads. Although some of the specifics depend on place and time and may lack relevance to my mountain practice, the general advice is universal. Krsna declared that success at yoga, referring here to meditation, doesn't come to anyone who eats too much or too little, or who sleeps too much or too little, and advocated moderation in diet, sleep and activity. Silence of the mind is to be attained patiently, bit by bit.
"When, from whatever cause,
the unsteady, vagrant mind wanders astray,
Then it should be restrained
and brought under control of the self alone." (VI,26)
Krsna praised the results of this practice, namely, attainment of Brahman, interminable bliss, realizing that your soul is the soul of all beings, and beholding Krsna everywhere in everything. Arjuna expressed reservation about the feasibility of this practice for the mind is as hard to control "as the wind". Krsna countered that although the mind is difficult to control it can be done "through practice and detachment".
* * *
The central theme of the first six chapters was karma; the next six chapters focus on Krsna Himself, as the Supreme Being. The seventh chapter delves into why ordinary beings fail to realize His divine nature. Krsna asserted that of men, only "one in thousands" strive for perfection, and of these only a rare man will realize His true nature. He claimed that He's the source of all that is but that the veil of external attributes conceals His immutable essence. He enumerated the four kinds of men who worship Him, "the distressed, the seekers of knowledge, the desirous of worldly objects, and the wise", much like the various visitors of my Guru. Of these, He said that wise were dearest to Him, for they're the ones who strive to realize His essence. He asserted that He stands behind any worship and dispenses the appropriate rewards. "Worshippers of the devas go to the devas; My devotees come to Me."
The eighth chapter discusses the transmigration of the soul. Krsna stated that the soul reincarnates according to the final thought at the time of death, but cautioned that this final thought is conditioned to be the most prevalent thought of the preceding life. Anyone accustomed to worldly thoughts is unlikely to be able to think of Krsna at the end.
"Therefore, remember Me all the time and fight.
With mind and intellect engrossed in Me,
without a doubt, you'll come to Me." (VIII,7)
Constant remembrance of Krsna is the assured way to attain Him, so immediately after this verse lauding action, Krsna extolled the remembrance of Him induced by contemplation.
"With the mind attuned to Him,
through the practice of yoga,
and straying nowhere else,
In meditation, the Resplendent
Supreme Being is reached." (VIII,8)
Either way, ever fixing the mind on Him is the way to Krsna. Krsna also told of the two routes travelled by the soul after leaving the body, one returning to this world, and the other, not. Yet, no mention is made of attaining Brahman in this body and not transmigrating at all, the immediate liberation extolled in the Upanisads.
In the ninth chapter Krsna asserted that He sends forth all beings at the time of creation and draws them back at the time of dissolution. Thus, the same beings take birth again and again through cycle after cycle of creation and dissolution. He claimed to be everything connected with the fire rituals of the Vedas from the fire to the Vedas themselves, but stated that rewards of these rituals are transitory; the best attainable through them is "coming and going", a vacation in Heaven and return to Earth. After saying once more that the worshippers of the devas go to them while His worshippers come to Him, He stated that He gladly accepts "a leaf, a flower, a fruit or water", offered to Him. The rituals of the Vedas, which lead to realm of the devas, were often elaborate and expensive to perform, but Krsna, Who 's the source of the devas themselves, is willing to accept even the simplest of offerings made with devotion.
Refuge with Krsna is open to all. He maintained that if a most wicked person would turn to worship Him, he would rapidly become righteous and attain eternal peace. He further stated that even women, those of lower caste and those of sinful birth who take refuge in Him also reach the supreme goal. The rituals of the Vedas were dependent upon caste; the lower castes were often banned from partaking in them. Hence this portion of the Gita has been cited by Gandhi and other opponents of caste discrimination in India. However, Krsna went on to goad Arjuna by saying that if even lowly people can take refuge and reach Him then why not men of noble birth like him. The hierarchy of caste is firmly entrenched in the Gita. Although it's reformist, it in no way challenges the notion of caste itself, just as in America today, the hierarchy of testing receives no serious opposition although specific tests may be criticized as culturally biased, or otherwise unfair. Unlike the Upanisads, the Gita isn't ready to speak lightly of the social order.
In the tenth chapter, Arjuna finally recognized Krsna as the Supreme Being and addressed Him,
"Supreme Brahman, Supreme Abode,
You're the Supreme Purifier,
The Eternal Resplendent Being,
the source of the devas,
unborn and pervading everything." (X,12)
Arjuna then asked Krsna to tell of His splendor so he could know as what and in what he should worship Him. After asserting that His splendor was endless, Krsna said, in a series of verses that Muhammed Ali, even at the height of his career, couldn't hope to match, that He was the greatest.
"Arjuna, I'm the soul
seated within all beings.
I'm the beginning, the middle
and the end of all beings." (X,20)
He continued to list which one of each category of being He was, from the different classes of Gods, to the sages, to the warriors, to the birds and the fishes, implying that He was the best and the mightiest of all of them, and thus claiming the glory of the various legends about them for Himself. Hindu mythology isn't my strong point; I know nothing about some of the beings He named as Himself. Indeed, this chapter contains lines like, "Of the serpents I'm Ananta; of the water beings, I'm Varuna". The ratings of Ananta and Varuna in name recognition surveys has dropped over the millenia. If Krsna were to rewrite this chapter for today's audience, for that line He would probably substitute something like, "Of the boxers, I am Ali; of the poets I am Shakespeare."
In addition to the categories of beings, Krsna characterized Himself by certain abstract qualities, such as "of the measures, time", and "of the swindlers, gambling", and without any qualification as Death. Yet, at the end of the chapter, He pointed to the futility of enumerating His splendors.
"Know that whatever is glorious,
prosperous or powerful
Is born of a droplet of my energy." (X,41)
"What's the use of knowing all these, Arjuna.
The universe exists and is supported
by a fraction of Myself." (X,42)
In the eleventh chapter, Arjuna requested Krsna to show him His Isvara form, His form as ruler of the universe. Such is all too familiar; poor Jesus was besieged with requests for miracles; even when people discover that I'm a yogi, they want to see me do some tricks. Krsna consented but said that because Arjuna couldn't see this form with his own eyes, He would give him a divine eye to behold It. Arjuna expected Krsna to sprout an extra limb or two, but what he saw made his hair stand on end. The form Krsna displayed filled his entire visual field in every direction, and was possessed of innumerable arms, sun and moon like eyes and flaming mouths. He beheld the devas and other celestial beings looking on with amazement. Then he saw the leaders of the opposing army, along with warriors of both sides flying into Krsna's fiery mouths as "moths fly into a blazing fire". He begged Krsna, in this terrifying form, to tell him who He was and what was His intent.
Krsna replied that He was the world destroying Time and that all these warriors would perish in battle even without Arjuna's participation. He had already slain them all and Arjuna was only His instrument. If Arjuna would fight he would be victorious. Arjuna fell at His feet and praised Him as the Supreme Being in every way he knew. Then he apologized for having treated Him like an ordinary friend and having addressed Him informally as "Hey Krsna" and the like, and prayed for His forgiveness. Finally, he thanked Krsna for having shown him His universal form but, still shaken, he asked Him to assume His simpler four-armed form. Krsna showed this form and then returned to His human form, after which Arjuna regained his composure.
Recall that the Gita has eighteen chapters. Even after seeing Krsna's universal form and receiving His assurance of victory, Arjuna wasn't yet ready to fight. He opened the twelfth chapter with a question to Krsna.
"Of those devotees who are constantly
attuned to worshipping You,
And those who worship the unmanifested Absolute,
who are better established in yoga?" (XII,1)
Once more, Arjuna was trying to make a distinction. "Worshipping You" refers to worshipping Krsna as He had just displayed Himself. In the non-dualistic view, Krsna is both manifested and the unmanifested Absolute, so this question is specious. To dualists, who take Krsna to be separate from, and even above the unmanifested Absolute, the question is real. Krsna responded,
"Those who fix their minds upon Me,
who're ever attuned to worshiping Me,
And endowed with supreme faith,
are the most attuned." (XII,2)
Similarly, this response is viewed in different ways. To the dualist who sees the question as real, the key word is "Me"; worshipping Krsna, as embodied, is superior. To the non-dualist, who sees Krsna as the object of worship in either case, Krsna's answer merely ducked a specious question and its intent was to praise steadiness of worship of Him. Even the Sanskrit word upasate which is translated as "worship", needs explanation. The same word is used in the Upanisads for contemplations like contemplating upon "Brahman as the Being within the sun". If the preceding verses are read with "contemplate" substituted for "worship", they have a different flavor. These verses are best conceived as including worship and contemplation both. Krsna further explained,
"Whoever worships the Absolute,
unchanging, unmoving, eternal, (XII,3)
With the senses all under control,
conceiving of the same in everything,
Dedicated to the betterment of all beings,
attains to Me alone." (XII,4)
Again, the non-dualists see these two verses as expounding the absolute nature of Krsna, while the dualists take them as expressing the futility of contemplating the Absolute. Krsna proceeded to state that contemplation of the unmanifested is, for most, the more difficult route.
"Those whose minds are fixed
on the unmanifested have more difficulty;
For an embodied being, the goal
of the unmanifested is difficult to attain. (XII,5)
But for whoever renounces
all actions to Me as the Supreme,
And worships with the yoga
of meditating on none other than Me, (XII,6)
And whose mind is fixed upon Me,
I soon become the rescuer from the sea
of endless births and deaths." (XII,7)
Meditation upon, or worship of the conceivable is certainly easier than meditation upon or worship of the inconceivable. Even the Upanisads which extoll the attributeless absolute nature of Brahman turn about and recommend that It be contemplated upon as "the Being within the sun", or "a smokeless light within the heart the size of the thumb", or as symbolized by the syllable "Aum". These forms for contemplation of the Absolute are still abstract. What Gita gives that's absent in the Upanisads is Krsna, in human form, yet one and the same as the Absolute. Furthermore, if Krsna as the grown man Who spoke the Gita is still too imposing, He may be worshipped in more diminutive form, as the infant Krsna Who killed the demoness with poisonous breasts sent to kill Him by sucking her dry, or as the mischievous little boy Krsna with hands in the butter jug. Indeed, through worship of Krsna as infant and child, Hindus, especially women, learn to see Him in their very own babies and to tolerate the antics of their children. Although the non-dualists see the form and the formless as the same in essence and different only in the eyes of the perceiver, the dualists maintain the supremacy of the form and, at best, consider the formless to be a futile abstraction.
Krsna then embarked on a series of verses telling how to become fixed upon Him.
"Fix your mind on Me alone;
direct your intellect toward Me.
Without a doubt, you'll hereafter be in Me." (XII,8)
"If you're unable to constantly fix your mind on Me,
Then seek to reach Me
through the practice of yoga, Arjuna." (XII,9)
Here, practice of yoga refers to bringing the mind back to Him every time it wanders away.
"If you're unable to practice yoga,
take action for My sake as supreme.
By doing work for My sake,
you'll attain perfection." (XII,10)
"If you cannot even do this,
then rest in My yoga
Of abandoning, with self-control,
the fruit of all action." (XII,11)
Thus Krsna gave a gradation of possible practices. The first was the direct. If you want your mind to be fixed upon Krsna, then without further ado, fix it upon Krsna. If this works, fine, but the typical mind will wander rather than remain fixed. Then you should attempt the practice of returning the mind each time it strays. However, if you have worldly responsibilities which preoccupy your mind too fully for you to constantly return it to Krsna, then dedicate the actions you must perform to Him and see Him in them. If even this doesn't work, then merely renounce the fruit of your actions; act without desire. Nevertheless, the last of these practices isn't inferior to the first, at least in so far as its result. Krsna expressed this in the next, confusing, verse.
"Knowledge is better than the practice of yoga;
meditation is superior to knowledge;
Renunciation of the fruit of action
is superior to meditation for from renunciation,
comes immediate peace." (XII,12)
Although, I've seen various interpretations placed on "practice of yoga", "knowledge", and "meditation" in the attempt to clarify this verse, I still cannot say that I understand its significance. What seems to make the most sense is that renunciation of the fruits of action is a precondition for the other practices. The peace that immediately follows renunciation is a universal phenomenon which I've witnessed time and time again. The root of this renunciation is termination of the expectation of happiness from the material world. Then the result of actions from a selfish point of view, becomes inconsequential. Indeed, the selfish point of view vanishes from consideration and necessary actions may be performed without anxiety.
Whatever the method, constant attunement to Krsna is the object. Krsna finished the chapter with a series of verses eulogizing the result of any of these practices, a devotee dear to Him.
"Antagonistic to none, friendly and kind to all,
Free of the notions of I and my, taking pleasure
and pain as alike, forbearing, (XII,13)
Contented, steadfast in yoga,
self-controlled, of firm resolve,
With mind and intellect fixed upon Me,
this devotee of Mine is dear to Me. (XII,14)
Whoever doesn't disturb the world,
and isn't disturbed by it,
And is liberated from enjoyment, envy,
fear and anxiety, is dear to Me. (XII,15)
Independent, pure, prompt, unconcerned, untroubled,
Completely renouncing all undertakings,
that devotee of Mine is dear to Me. (XII,16)
Whoever's without joy, hate, grief or longing,
Who has transcended good and evil,
and who's filled with devotion, is dear to Me.(XII,17)
Whoever's the same to friend and foe,
the same in honor and disrepute,
The same in heat and cold, and pleasure and pain,
having overcome attachment, (XII,18)
Indifferent to censure and praise,
content with anything,
Homeless, steady minded
and full of devotion, is dear to Me. (XII,19)
Those who abide by the immortal dharma just enounced,
Full of faith and devoted to Me as Supreme,
are exceedingly dear to Me." (XII,20)
This completes this shortest chapter of only twenty verses. I've been following the usual translations in rendering bhakti as "devotion" and bhakta as "devotee", but it now should be clear that the essence of bhakti, as used in the Gita, is constant remembrance of, or fixation upon Krsna. Nowadays, bhakti is sometimes used to mean repetition of His name. Although this is a sound method of fostering remembrance, it's only a part of bhakti which also includes contemplative practices and other disciplines dedicated to Him. Furthermore, from the non-dualist point of view, He's the Absolute, so absorption in the Absolute is encompassed by bhakti. Let the path of bhakti, bhakti yoga, be followed by each in his own way for all its variants lead to the same result; there truly are many more interpretations of this chapter than the non-dualist viewpoint and the extreme dualist position that I've outlined.
* * *
The twelfth chapter concludes the third of the Gita dedicated to bhakti; the last third concerns itself with jnana, that is, knowledge. On the whole, it follows the Samkhya philosophy, which is dualistic and which relies heavily upon categorization and enumeration. In the Samkhya view, the universe evolves from two underlying, eternally existing components, purusa and prakrti. Purusa is accurately translated as "spirit". Literally, it means "dweller within the city", with "city" referring to the body; the word occurs in the Upanisads meaning "soul" or "inner being". Prakrti is customarily translated as "nature", but this hardly does it justice, for it really refers to a primordial constituent from which the world is born. Prakrti is best conceived of as the source of the fundamental tendencies leading to transformation and activity. This word doesn't occur in the principal Upanisads, which view Brahman alone as the single permanent entity that underlies everything else. Yet, the Gita differs from the pure Samkhya philosophy, which rests on purusa and prakrti alone, in that Krsna placed Himself as a higher entity, above and beyond the two.
In the thirteenth chapter, Krsna enumerated the tendencies, born of prakrti, which lead to creation, transformation and activity, and the counter tendencies which lead to purification and involution. The particulars are of little concern to me, but the conclusion is beautifully stated.
"The Supreme Lord, existing the same in all beings,
The indestructible within the destructible,
whoever thus sees, truly sees. (XIII,27)
Seeing the Lord existing the same everywhere,
He himself doesn't injure himself
and attains the highest state." (XIII,28)
As soon as anyone sees his soul as no different from any other soul, and identifies himself with the soul and not the body, morally proper conduct becomes automatic for the selfishness that leads to improper conduct is eradicated.
The fourteenth chapter discusses the three gunas, the attributes or fundamental tendencies through which prakrti is manifested. They are sattva, characterized by purity, light and knowledge; raja, characterized by desire, greed and activity; and tama, characterized by darkness, lethargy and delusion. [Footnote 1] In this chapter the gunas are described only with generalities. Their meanings become clearer when, in the seventeenth and eighteenth chapters, specific examples are given of each. The gist of this chapter is that all three gunas, even the purest, sattva, result in bondage. Nevertheless, there's a state transcending all three in which,
"For light, activity and delusion alike, Arjuna,
There's neither revulsion if present
nor longing if absent." (XIV,22)
Knowledge, purity and goodness still cause bondage and hence rebirth as long as there's attachment to them. In the highest state there's indifference to them as well. Yet they, the characteristics of sattva guna, are the gateway to liberation, although not liberation itself, while the attributes of the other gunas are the generators of deeper entanglement in the world.
The fifteenth chapter treats the embodiment of the Supreme Being within the world. The created world is likened to a giant asvattha tree which appears to have neither beginning nor end. Indeed, there are many species of great, spreading tropical trees, which, when lost in the middle of them, seem to be endless and to be all that is. Yet Krsna asserted that this firmly rooted asvattha tree can be cut through with the "axe of detachment". If you're ever lost in the midst of a jungle, within one of the gargantuan trees and merely thrash your way about, you'll only go about in circles and never escape its limits, but if, with calmness and detachment, you fix a direction and follow its course, eventually you'll reach beyond its confines. He went on to describe the result of this detachment.
"Beyond delusive pride, victorious over attachment,
Eternally attuned to the soul, with desire eradicated,
Free of dualities such as pleasure and pain,
The undeluded reach the goal, the eternal That." (XV,5)
"That" refers to Brahman. The first five verses of this chapter reflect the non-dualistic point of view; the analogy of the tree itself appears in the Upanisads. Krsna proceeded to explain how the soul loses itself in creation, in terms of the categories of Samkhya. He concluded by declaring Himself to be the Supreme Purusa, beyond all, and to be the way to liberation.
Before eating in assembly, the monks of my order recite this chapter. Cynics may say that this chapter was chosen because it's one of the two shortest of the Gita. Like the twelfth chapter, it has only twenty verses; admittedly, we do get to eat sooner than if we were to recite the seventy-two verses of the second chapter or the seventy-eight verses of the eighteenth. I've heard others say that this chapter was selected for recitation before meals because Krsna mentioned in one line of it that He was the digester of food, and thus, by reciting this line, the meal is relinquished to Him. Although I may be thankful for its brevity when hungry, what I see as special about this chapter is its beautiful description of the efficacy of detachment.
The sixteenth chapter is a digression intended to allay Arjuna's fears of winding up in Hell, expressed in the first chapter, by describing the beings that do end in Hell. Krsna divided the beings in the realm of men into two categories, beings with pure tendencies, like those of the devas, who are heading towards liberation, and beings with impure tendencies, like those of the asuras, who are sinking deeper into bondage. After assuring Arjuna that he was of divine tendency, Krsna described the others as crass seekers of enjoyment.
"This desire has been fulfilled by me
and will be fulfilled again.
These riches are mine
and more will come again. (XVI,13)
This enemy I've slain
and others I'll slay.
I'm a ruler, an enjoyer,
successful, powerful and happy." (XVI,14)
Krsna concluded by neatly consigning them to birth after birth in Hell and saying,
"The gates of Hell, leading
to the degradation of the soul are threefold,
Desire, anger and greed.
Thus these three should be renounced." (XVI,21)
The seventeenth chapter characterizes diet, rituals, tapa and gift-making in terms of the three gunas. The distinctions are most clear for gift-making.
"Given only for the sake of giving,
to someone who does nothing in return,
At the proper time and place,
such a gift is considered to be sattvika. (XVII,20)
Given with the expectation of receiving in return,
with an eye for the fruit,
Or with reluctance, such a gift
is considered to be rajasika. (XVII,21)
Given at the wrong place, at the wrong time,
to an unworthy person,
With disdain or with improper intent, such a gift
is considered to be tamasika." (XVII,22)
The making of gifts is a duty enjoined in the ritualistic portion of the Vedas which also tell at what times and places and to whom they should be made. While there may be argument as to whether a person is a worthy recipient, the overriding selfless nature of a sattvika gift shines in its pure light. Making gifts as enjoined by the Vedas does win merit for future births; the fruit of giving refers to this. People of rajasika nature give with an eye to getting something for themselves, either here, from the recipient, or in the hereafter. Beside general inappropriateness, a frequent feature of tamasika giving is giving to demonstrate superiority over the recipient as has unfortunately been the case of much United States foreign aid.
The gunas tend to be self-perpetuating. Somebody of predominantly sattvika nature generally makes gifts in a sattvika manner which, in turn, reinforces his sattvika qualities, and similarly for the other gunas. Furthermore, a gift made with a certain tendency also engenders that same tendency in the recipient.
When in India, in my orange monastic garb, I'm one of the worthy recipients for gifts mentioned in the scriptures. I receive offers of food and such which, unless I have good reason to do otherwise, it's incumbent upon me to accept. Admittedly, it took me a while to overcome my American pride, but I've learned to gracefully accept a meal from the struggling poor, once I realized that for them, making an offering to a monk, especially one from a distant land, is far more important than the bit of food that may enter my mouth instead of theirs.
However, I've learned to be on guard against rajasika and tamasika offers. If the gift is outwardly made in proper form, then I'm best off assuming purity of motive, even if I do suspect that the donor is inwardly accumulating points for a trip to Heaven. Most acts are of mixed guna and, as long as an offer is made with sufficient purity for me to focus upon, I can shield myself from whatever impure tendencies are in it. Often the desire for something in return is more immediate. For instance, as soon as I'm seated at a house, I may be asked to show my watch, of which I carry none, or asked about visas for America. At such times it's best to just get up and leave. Often the situation isn't so clear cut, as, for example, when an elder of the household offers me a meal without ulterior motive, but while I'm eating, a nephew drops by and starts at me with material requests in English which the host doesn't understand.
Tamasika offers seem to come mostly from the wealthy, who can easily afford to fill my belly with the finest of food, but who instead seek to demonstrate their superiority. The general pattern is that, after I'm seated at the house, I'm left alone for an inordinate time. I get up and try to slip out but a servant notices me whereupon somebody comes rushing over to assure me that food will be ready shortly. I sit down and again am ignored for a longer time than proper, but just as I'm ready to attempt another escape, a servant finally brings a glass of water. After another interval a plate finally comes with a meager portion of leftovers from three days before, no longer fit to be fed to the cow. Then there's nothing to do but to leave. With experience, I've learned to detect the pattern early, even in the tone of the initial invitation.
The characterizations of rituals and tapa according to the gunas are similar. If they're performed in the proper manner, with pure motive and without desire for the fruit, they're sattvika; if they're performed for the sake of the fruit or with great ostentation, they're rajasika; if they're done improperly or with some injurious intent, they're tamasika.
Unfortunately, Krsna was least specific about diet. He described Sattvika food in generalities like productive of health and vitality, smooth, firm and agreeable, but without concrete examples, it's difficult to know what these terms mean; whatever specific meanings they may once have had, has been lost in time. For rajasika food, Krsna gave some better-defined qualities, bitter, sour, salty, hot, pungent, dry, burning and producing pain and disease. Thus rajasika food is eaten for its immediate sensory stimulation, without regard to its total effect. The description of rajasika foods sheds light on what's sattvika, since strong-tasting rajasika foods can be eliminated from the sattvika. Yet, people interpret adjectives like hot and salty to mean excessively hot or salty, and define "excessively" according to their own tastes. Indeed, I've received food that was supposedly sattvika but which was so hot that a mere taste made me gulp a glass of water or which had enough salt in it to transform the Pacific Ocean into the Dead Sea. No mention is made of excessive sweetness; I've met great-bellied pandits who gorge themselves on sweets but who won't touch a tomato because of its mild acidity. In the final analysis, the Gita is vague enough so you just have to carefully note the effect of foods on yourself, and draw the appropriate conclusions. Tamasika food is described as impure, stale, refuse and the like. The basic precepts of cleanliness lead to its avoidance.
The chapter ends by declaring "Aum Tat Sat" to be the "triple designation of Brahman". The sacred syllable "Aum" is the universal sound and the symbol of Brahman. All the rituals of the Vedas are begun with its utterance. Its supremacy is extolled throughout the Upanisads. "Tat" means "That" and represents the absoluteness of Brahman, beyond any possible description other than negation after negation. "Sat" has its dual meaning of "real" and "good". It complements the "Tat" for it indicates that Brahman, although beyond conceptualization, is not a non-entity, a Buddhistic kind of void, but is the underlying, immutable reality from which all else comes to be.
The diverse themes of the Gita are drawn together in the climactic eighteenth chapter. Beginning with the relinquishment of action, Krsna characterized a number of the adjuncts of karma according to the three gunas.
"The renunciation of obligatory action is improper;
Abandonment of such action
in delusion is tamasika. (XVIII,7)
Anyone who abandons an action because of fear
of physical injury or because it's painful
Is making a rajasika relinquishment and fails
to obtain the fruit of renunciation. (XVIII,8)
Arjuna, the performance of obligatory action
merely because it should be done,
While abandoning attachment to it and its fruit,
is sattvika renunciation." (XVIII,9)
Krsna also characterized jnana, used more in the sense of understanding, according to the gunas.
"Jnana by which the one indestructible entity
is seen within all beings,
The indivisible within the divided,
is considered to be sattvika. (XVIII,20)
Jnana through which distinct entities
of different kinds
Are seen in different beings,
is considered to be rajasika. (XVIII,21)
Jnana which takes a single effect
to be the whole,
With neither basis nor reason,
is considered to be tamasika." (XVIII,22)
These verses have specific reference. The sattvika see the universal soul within all beings; the rajasika see distinct souls within each body; the tamasika only see the body, the single effect, and miss the soul.
This classification applies not only to understanding of the nature of the soul, but to any field of knowledge. The discovery of unifying principles which interrelate a number of seemingly separate phenomena is sattvika. The most dramatic examples of sattvika understanding are Newtonian mechanics and Einsteinian relativity, in both of which a single man, wielding a few equations, revolutionized human understanding. Such unifications aren't confined to physics. Over the last few decades, through progress in genetics and molecular biology, a vast array of the mechanisms of life have been drawn together and placed on a common foundation. Although this unification hasn't been as sudden as the great unifications of physics, it may prove to be at least as significant. Often the unearthing of a single document clarifies a whole series of historical events. A shrewd detective may notice a pattern in a number of apparently unrelated crimes and be on his way to trapping the single perpetuator of them all. Sattvika understanding transforms the complex, diverse and perplexing into the simple, unified and clear. Many times, sattvika understanding has faced suppression by society. Galileo faced the inquisition; under the rule of Stalin, Darwinian evolution was suppressed by Lysenko, and, in America, efforts to ban the teaching of evolution itself are far from dead.
Rajasika understanding leads to increased diversity and distinction. Recently, particle physicists have been caught in a rajasika bind. Each time they thought they had a complete set of elementary particles, new ones popped up. They've attempted to reduce all observed particles to combinations of more fundamental entities called "quarks", which have never been detected, but even the number of quarks needed to explain the observed particles, has been multiplying. Raja guna perpetuates itself through greed and desire; particle physicists have developed an insatiable appetite for more powerful and increasingly expensive particle accelerators, which only add to the host of particles and compound the confusion. Raja guna isn't confined to particle physics but may be the driving force behind most research. New distinctions are more quickly discovered than underlying principles; because of the "publish or perish" ethic prevalent at research establishments, even a person originally of sattvika inclination is often reduced to churning out rajasika papers to survive. As a result, originality, rather than quality, has become the principal criterion for publication. A historian can put many more pages into print by chasing down obscure documents and inconsequential events than by painstakingly searching for the keys to understanding the major movements of history. The average policeman, who frequently must fill a quota of arrests, will go about picking up people for petty charges like loitering or possession of trivial quantities of drugs rather than pursuing the perpetuators of serious violent crimes who are more difficult to find and more dangerous to capture. In American society, so dominated by raja guna, you must Break Away in order to reach sattvika understanding.
A prime example of tamasika understanding is medical research which seeks simple pharmacological cures for complex diseases like cancer and hypertension while ignoring society's role in producing these diseases through pollution and intense social pressure. As long as a researcher feels constrained to stay within society's bounds, even if he's aware of society's part as the cause of these diseases, he's trapped in a tamasika bind because funds for drug research are available to him while funds for revolutionizing society aren't. In the short run, he's truly more likely to save a few lives by continuing with his research than by lying down in front of a polluting factory's gates. To strike at its root, he must break with society's constricting definition of the problem. With knowledge as complex as it is today, specialization is a necessity and isn't in itself tamasika just as long as awareness is maintained of what lies beyond the specialty and of how different fields of knowledge interrelate. However, a linguist in a distant land, who's so intent on recording a speaker's syntactical usage that he misses a fascinating tale and perhaps a more significant anthropological discovery, is trapped by tama guna. Although the concept of class struggle is useful in explaining many facets of both history and the world today, the Marxist predilection to explain everything and anything in terms of it alone is tamasika. The district attorney who's inclined to indict the first suspect on flimsy evidence rather than fully investigate a crime, or who scrupulously avoids tracing leads pointing to a criminal organization having the local politicians in pay, is deep in the mire of tama guna.
The predominant guna of someone's understanding is most readily distinguished by how he reacts to data discordant to his view. The tamasika are inclined to ignore discordant data or to blindly dismiss it as observational error. The rajasika latch on to discordant data, or any new phenomenon, with delight and often fail to ascertain whether the new source of joy and opportunities for publication is, in fact, an observational error or a mere statistical quirk. The sattvika first detachedly examine the discordant data to see if it's valid, and if it is, they seek to modify their notions in its light.
Here at Dharmanath, understanding my environment is crucial to my survival. However, the first time a discordant phenomenon appears that isn't of dire consequence, I'm tempted is to dismiss it as a freak occurrence. The first time I saw a mouse, I ignored it and simply hoped it would go away; only when I saw that my cave was infested and when holes started appearing in my tent, did I begin the grim task of scooping them up. Even after several winters' experience, as soon as I trap a few, I find myself hoping that all for the season have been caught. Indeed, the rodent roundup is fraught with tama guna. With respect to the whereabouts of the mushrooms, I'm in as much of a rajasika pickle as the particle physicists. Each year I make new observations and come up with new theories, only to have them destroyed the following year by the wayward mushrooms. Part of the trouble may be the working of desire. Although they're wholesome and nourishing, they're also the most delicious food I have and furthermore, a good crop reduces the loads I must carry. Gradually I've learned to just let them come as they wish, to detachedly keep an eye out for them wherever I walk and not to run madly over the meadows to places they've been before. Although each year brings its own sequence of storms, I've been able to determine the snow's general pattern of the accumulation; each year with less effort I build myself better protection from the elements. I've learned how long my water sources are likely to last and no longer waste energy trying to build snow structures to shelter them. Sattvika understanding begets freedom from the necessity to act.
Krsna proceeded to characterize deeds, performers of deeds, intellect, persistence and finally enjoyment in terms of the gunas. Sattvika enjoyment "at the beginning seems like poison but at the end, like nectar", and comes from a purified intellect. Rajasika enjoyment "at the beginning seems like nectar but at the end, like poison", and is born of the senses. Enjoyment which both stems from and results in lethargy and stupefaction is tamasika.
Next Krsna described the duties to which the members of the different castes are born and then declared,
"It's better for someone to abide poorly
by his own dharma than to perform
the dharma of another well.
By doing the karma inherent in his own nature,
no one incurs sin. (XVIII,47)
Arjuna, no one should abandon the karma
to which he's born
even if it's accompanied by evil.
All undertakings are beclouded
by evil, as fire, by smoke." (XVIII,48)
The state beyond evil is not of this mortal world; even the most innocuous of actions may have undesirable consequences. It took me two lessons to learn that merely leaving a bucket standing upright may mean the demise of a shrew.
After extolling action as a path to liberation, to maintain a balance, Krsna reviewed the steps by which the man of contemplation may attain liberation. Finally He told Arjuna that if he expected not to fight, he was deceiving himself for his own nature would compel him to fight, that He had enounced the deepest of wisdom and that after considering it thoroughly, Arjuna should do as he liked.
The Gita doesn't indicate periods of silence within its dialogue, but I presume that there was a long one at this juncture. It resumed when Krsna told Arjuna to hear His word once more.
"Relinquish every dharma; take refuge in Me alone.
Don't worry; I'll free you from all sin." (XVIII,66)
Here dharma means doctrine and, after His most eloquent exposition of so many doctrines, Krsna concluded by telling Arjuna to look beyond them all, directly to Him, the goal of all dharma. Arjuna replied that he would do as Krsna said. The fierce battle that ensued left few standing, even on the victorious side.
* * *
It's difficult to know what to make of the Gita which expounds so many different doctrines and paths in such little space. It may be seen as synthetic, as a grand unification of all the doctrines expressed. Certainly, it's a beautiful statement of how all paths lead to the same goal, and it has been a force holding the various strands of Hinduism together. Yet, the nature of this synthesis remains elusive. While Hindus see the Gita as a common base, divergent schools each maintain that it expresses their own philosophy, and handle portions at odds with them either by saying that the contrary ideas were hypothetical, advanced for only argument's sake, or by maintaining that the Gita establishes a hierarchy of philosophies with theirs at the apex and the others meant for people not yet ready to grasp the truth of theirs, or else through sharp twists of meaning. The passages which say that if you don't do this do that, support the arguments for a hierarchy, but create disagreement as to whether the earlier or the later doctrines are superior.
The Gita may be viewed as eclectic, as propounding many valid points of view for Arjuna to consider and, while not establishing the supremacy of any one, as showing that they all lead to the same conclusion, that he should fight. Finally the Gita may be taken to be debunking, that all the high philosophies were expounded only to wear down Arjuna's intellect until he was ready to surrender, to totally abandon intellectualization and, without reservation, to follow Krsna. Although surpassing the intellect is vital to liberation and Krsna isn't kind to empty intellectualization, that is, to jnana unaccompanied by bhakti and leading away from the performance of obligatory action, the ideas of the Gita cannot be hollow, for understanding is essential to both proper action and true devotion.
So I, like everyone else, am left to see in the Gita what appeals to me. For my underlying philosophy I look to the the Upanisads, whose unequivocal statement of Advaita Vedanta matches my own experience as well as my Guru's. Numerically, more verses of the Gita are Samkhya in outlook, especially if all the verses pertaining to the gunas are counted among the Samkhya. Although, I and the others of my school will accept the gunas as providing exceptional insight, both into the functioning of the world and into the means to transcend it, we won't agree that the gunas are products of an uncreated prakrti. Overall, I don't see the Gita as expounding a single consistent philosophy, and am of a school which considers the Gita as a supplement to the Upanisads which gives dharmas suited to a different era.
Unlike the Upanisads, the Gita was composed in troubled times. The Upanisads viewed the social order as self-maintaining. In the fourth section of the first chapter of the Brhadaranyakopanisad, it's stated that at first all were Brahmanas but things weren't working. One by one the Creator made the other castes but still things didn't work. Then He created the dharma, that by which the weak may overcome the strong, and the system functioned. Under the rule of the dharma, the social system was considered to be self-correcting, without need for intervention by either the enlightened sages or the Supreme Being, for there were just and powerful rulers like Janaka whose dharma it was to defend the dharma. Furthermore, nobody was bound by anything other than his own desire to remain within the system; anybody could withdraw to a reclusive life in search of the Beyond.
By the time of the Gita, society had deteriorated to the point where divine intervention was needed to restore the dharma. The earlier portions of the Mahabharata described the injustice of the time. Even the seeker of liberation had to meet with the evil in the world. Hence, the Gita expounded two dharmas, karma yoga, which placed detached action on an equal footing with the contemplative disciplines, and bhakti yoga, which equated all practices dedicated and directed to the Supreme Being, neither of which are found in the Upanisads.
One of the favorite sayings of Yogiraj Handiya Baba, the Guru of my Guru, was that karma, bhakti and jnana formed the legs of a three legged stool. Although somebody sitting on such a stool may place more weight on one leg than another, if any of the legs is missing he won't be steady. Bhakti and jnana, unaccompanied by karma, results in impotence; karma and jnana, undirected by bhakti sinks to aimlessness; karma and bhakti, untempered by jnana, leads to fanaticism. No one of the three is supreme; for me, the essence of the Gita is its expression of the interdependence of the three.
Two psalms in praise of the Gita, both of later origin, are customarily recited along with it and appear in most editions of it. The Gita Dhyanam, consists of nine-single verse meditations on the Gita, the most famous of which is the fourth which expresses the traditional view that the Gita is an extract of the Upanisads.
"All the Upanisads are the cows;
Krsna is their milker;
Arjuna is the calf;
those of purified intellect are the drinkers;
the milk is the great immortal Gita."
The Gita Mahatmyam lists the benefits of reciting the Gita. It states that daily recitation of the whole eighteen chapters leads to the supreme goal, recitation of half gives the same merit as making the gift of a cow, recitation of a third gives the same fruit as a bath in the Ganges, and proceeds to promise an appropriate reward for recitation of any fraction of the Gita, down to a single line. These assertions can be taken to have esoteric meaning, such as interpreting recitation of a portion to mean either complete understanding of that portion or practicing its doctrines in real life. Otherwise they can be considered merely as encouraging the study of the Gita, for even the mindless recitation of the Gita by one may be heard and understood by another. Men of realization come and go but it's the ritualistic reciters of the Gita who have preserved the text through troubled times and have passed it intact to us today.
The editions of the Gita by far outnumber those of the Upanisads. I own eight and have read others. Two are here at Dharmanath. One, in Sanskrit only, measures 1-1/4 inches by 2 inches, sits in my shoulder bag, and travels wherever I go. It was published by the Gita Press of Gorakhpur, which does an excellent job of publishing inexpensive editions of the popular scriptures in various sizes and shapes. Another, published by the Ramakrishna Order [Footnote 2] , containing the Sanskrit, a word by word translation and terse commentary, is stored here. Although an unaccompanied translation may do for the first reading, translation is inherently imprecise enough so for deeper understanding, the Sanskrit original must be examined. Several commentaries of differing schools must be seen to appreciate the breadth of the Gita; eventually the great commentary by Sankaracarya must be read.
Yet, I've learned more of the spirit of the Gita directly from men who've made it their lives than from books. One ashram where I've stayed, Sankara Math in Bangladesh, is built about the Gita. The residents, in shifts, maintain a continuous recitation of the Gita so a visitor at any hour may hear its wisdom, and spend the rest of their time seeking its inner meaning. There, I too read the entire Gita every day and experienced its uplift, though I took three or four hours to read it through instead of the customary two. Here, my practice is other, so I read at most a third of the Gita at a sitting.
* * *
Toward the end of January the sun reaches my cave once more. At first, it appears for only a moment through a notch between two pinnacles. Gradually it rises higher and higher in the notch. By the first of February, it passes above one of the pinnacles and blesses the mouth of the cave for a full hour. No longer must I climb to feel its warmth. If, when it hits, the tunnel is open the luminosity within my cave rises to ten times its level of the preceding two months. Once the visual cones start operating drab world of rod vision blossoms in color.
During the dead of winter, to conserve warmth within the cave, I keep the entrance hole as small as possible, just large enough to conveniently get in and out. Once the sun returns, I enlarge it to admit more light and radiant heat. By this time, the end of the tunnel is well-eroded by the winter's wind; I add a new facing of blocks to it. The snow continues to settle until spring, but the rate of settling diminishes. Though I still must carve my tunnel ceilings higher, I must do so less frequently. With the ascent of the sun, the focus of my activity returns to the outside.
On one hand, it feels as if spring is ready to come. Again I can dry clothing at the mouth of the cave. Once more, I notice things inside the cave which had been escaping me. Even routine tasks, like leveling the floor, go better with more illumination. Furthermore, I'm less likely to pour a dangerous excess of fuel on the stove if I can see what I'm doing. Although the solstice comes at the end of December, the coldest temperatures come a month later. The days of unclouded sky are a minority. Sub-zero temperatures, heavy storms and piercing winds continue to strike. Even if the sun is blocked by cloud, when it's above the horizon it adds much brightness to the day; even if the temperature is zero, a few moments of direct sunlight lend a welcome warmth. Thus, I rearrange my schedule to be sure that I'll be out at midday just in case the sky is open when the sun peeps above the rim. For days, I may be confined as the wind whips the snow into weird patterns of undulation, but once it calms, I walk about in a dazzling sea of Japanese art. After the sun surmounts that first pinnacle, the period of sunlight increases rapidly and reaches three hours only a month after the sun first pokes a corner of its face through the notch.
1. Their adjective forms are sattvika, rajasika and tamasika. [Return]
2. Srimad Bhagavad Gita Swami Swarupananda (translator). Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama 1909 [Return]
Continue to Chapter 8.
Return to Table of Contents.