Notes of a Discussion on the Bhagavad-Gita - James A. Long, Chairman

Chapter 4

Limitations of Literalism

Chapter 2 of the Gita, cont.
(From Sunrise, April 1959. Copyright © 1959 by Theosophical University Press.)

Chairman -- Dick, would you like to start our discussion this evening by picking up where we left off on page 15, Chapter 2? You will remember Krishna had urged Arjuna to become indifferent as to whether he was victorious or not, and to rise with determination and "prepare for battle."

Dick -- Krishna then explains to Arjuna that everything he has told him so far has been "in accordance with the Sankhya doctrine," but now he will show him the "practical, devotional" path,

by means of which, if fully imbued therewith, thou shalt forever burst the bonds of karma and rise above them. In this system of yoga no effort is wasted, nor are there any evil consequences, and even a little of this practice delivereth a man from great risk.

In the next paragraph Krishna speaks again of those who cling to the letter of the law, "the unwise, delighting in the controversies of the Vedas," who prefer the "transient enjoyment of heaven" and "flowery sentences which promise rewards in future births," and so forth, adding that those who are concentrated on desire and riches have no "certainty of soul."

Chairman -- Let me interrupt a moment, please, to comment briefly on Krishna's usage of the terms Sankhya and Yoga so that we do not get a false impression at the start. According to Radhakrishnan, whose excellent translation of the Gita we are using along with the Judge Recension, neither the Sankhya nor the Yoga Schools of Philosophy as they are presently known today in India are referred to, as they were still in their formative stages when the Gita philosophy was being written down.

In this particular verse, Krishna sounds a keynote for his entire discourse by pointing out to Arjuna that what he has given him thus far is the "yoga of knowledge," that is, the metaphysical and intellectual doctrine or Sankhya-yoga, from which Chapter 2 takes its name. Now, however, he will show him the "practical, devotional" way of buddhi-yoga -- that path of devotion or yoga which seeks "union" with the divine Self or atman through the development of the intuitional and higher mental faculties. Simply put, Krishna leads Arjuna from intellectual speculations into the practical application of the philosophy so that his search for reality or At-one-ment may become a living experience.

It is well to remember, however, that while the Gita may refer to this or that system of thought, it does not set one above another, aiming always to unify and illumine all streams of spiritual inquiry so that the ageless values will dominate over the ritualistic traditions which form its local background.

Unfortunately the word yoga sometimes has a bad connotation among Western peoples because of the very low form of hatha-yoga practices which have been so widely offered in the West by itinerant yogis to a gullible public. While in its more subtle forms hatha-yoga -- literally "forced" yoga -- may at one time in the East have served its purpose under carefully restricted conditions, in the present day, particularly in the West, it can if persisted in lead to serious unbalance, both morally and physically. And why do I say this? Primarily because it tends through the control and regulation of the vital breaths or pranas to "force" the psychic centers into premature activity.

True yoga, as anciently understood, has nothing to do with such outer methods of training, its emphasis being on the development of the higher energies of the soul, allowing the psychic and physical to evolve naturally under their refining influence. More specifically, the endeavor of the highest yoga-discipline is to unify all the currents of one's being -- mind, heart, aspiration, and will -- with the divine center within. Of this yoga, no finer example could be offered than the Gita, as its entire philosophy is founded on practical wisdom. Significantly, the collophon or concluding verse of every chapter states that the Bhagavad-Gita is a Upanishad, the dialog between Krishna and Arjuna being a "yoga scripture of the wisdom of Brahman" (brahma-vidya); each of the eighteen chapters thus developing one of the numerous phases of this yoga-wisdom by which all people, whatever their particular faith, may seek "union" with the Supreme: "whatever path taken by mankind, that path is mine" (ch. 4).

I hope you don't mind this interruption, but it seemed necessary to clarify our understanding of what the true yoga is because of the many misinterpretations and side-avenues of development that have all but smothered its original significance. Does anyone have any comment or question before we continue with the reading? Yes, Tom.

Tom -- One phrase that struck me was where Krishna says that following even a little of this practical, devotional path will deliver a man from great risk. Now I realize of course that this could refer to risks or dangers of a worldly or physical nature; but applying it more directly to ourselves, I was wondering if perhaps the greatest of all risks isn't that of getting off the track, of losing touch with one's inner self, and perhaps even turning one's back completely on one's true goal.

Frank -- Yes, I was glad that Krishna said "even a little" of this practice would act as a protection, because all of us have such a long way to go on this path of self-conquest. Also I thought it encouraging to note the implication that even when mistakes are made, if the motive is sincere then there are no truly "evil consequences" because "no effort is wasted." Incidentally, I checked the original text and found that the word "practice" here was our old friend dharma, and the word "risk" could just as easily be translated "fear, apprehension, or dread." This rounded out the picture for me, because I myself think that fear and self-doubt constitute one of the greatest stumbling blocks to progress.

Chairman -- You are right, and dharma, as we all know, means not only duty, but law, path, as well as religion. So we could read the passage in this way: "even to begin to follow one's dharma -- or true duty or path -- will protect one from fear and distrust." Where there is one-pointed devotion to the highest law of one's being, there is protection -- the protection that comes from striving to the best of one's ability to live the inner life of the soul instead of the outer one.

But there is more to this phrase than at first appears, else why would tills same thought be found in so many of the ancient writings: that if one just reads the sacred verses, he will attain "heaven" or be enlightened. Obviously, a thousand readings of scripture will never make a person spiritual; there is much to be said, however, for placing oneself consciously under the influence of noble ideas. It may be that the mere contact with the current of truth leaves its invigorating effect on the soul, as though a bit of its essence brushes off on the mind and heart of him who approaches the simplest of duties "with even a little" of the spirit of pure devotion.

Ernest-- Would you say then it is the act of devotion that is in itself a sort of guarantee? Let me phrase it again: if one is selflessly devoted to the cause of truth, will this serve as an assurance that he will in time overcome all difficulties?

Chairman -- Wonderful, Ernest, and I certainly couldn't have expressed it as neatly.

Louise -- I have been thinking about Krishna's statement that if we were fully imbued with the devotional path, we would "forever burst the bonds of karma." I think that can be easily misinterpreted, because I don't see how we ever get away from karma. I suppose it really means that if we purify ourselves sufficiently through following the higher way we are better able to meet the effects of our past. I would appreciate having this discussed a little.

Chairman -- This is a most important facet, particularly because in the Orient for many centuries now the matter of karma, and reincarnation too, has been greatly misunderstood to mean that one simply has to give in to whatever circumstances or environment he finds himself in, "because it is my karma," my lot, my fate, decreed by my past. Now that is a completely negative approach, and not at all countenanced by the Gita. As we have seen, Krishna's whole psychology is to arouse the manhood in Arjuna to meet life as it is, without compromise. The term "bonds of karma" is used frequently in Hindu as well as Buddhist literature, and refers to the irrevocability of justice: that how a person thinks and acts now will have a binding influence on his future. But what Krishna is trying to show here, at least in part, is that the soul need not be held in bondage forever by past error, for it can always meet creatively whatever its karma may be. It does not mean that we can avoid meeting the effect of even the smallest cause, for were that possible then the universe would fall to pieces as there would be no law, justice, or harmony in the divine pattern.

Ben -- Couldn't it also mean that no matter how highly developed an individual may be, karma will continue, but that when we fully accept life as it is and work with it, we actually do rise above the bonds of karma in that we are no longer chained down by their weight?

Ned -- If we were able to become truly equal-minded, would that nullify the bonds of karma?

Chairman -- We must be careful of our words. We cannot ever nullify in the sense of cancel out any cause until we have faced and handled its effect in full. However, as Ben pointed out, by working positively with whatever our circumstances or situation may be, performing every duty with "even a little" of the true devotion, we can eliminate the binding, down-dragging effect of past error and by so much we do "burst the bonds of karma."

But again, there is another aspect to this which should not be overlooked. Most of us I take it are familiar with the Oriental idea that one should try to get away from the "wheel of life," to escape the ceaseless round of birth and rebirth, in order to attain nirvana. Now this is a crude and misleading distortion of a beautiful concept. There are always pioneers, "forerunners" of the human race, who through complete dedication to truth are able to quicken their evolution to such a degree that they rapidly reach that point where rebirth on earth is unnecessary for them because they have already passed all the "examinations" and learned all the lessons that life has to offer. Having indeed "burst the bonds of karma" -- but of earthly karma, not universal or divine karma -- they have the choice of becoming "freed souls" or jivanmuktas, or of refusing the bliss and freedom of moksha or nirvana and returning, as do the avataras and buddhas, to the great "orphan humanity" that the Arjunas of every land might be helped along the way.

Tom -- That is wonderful and links right up with that famous statement of Krishna that he incarnates from age to age whenever there is a decline of virtue in order to destroy the wicked and re-establish righteousness.

Robert -- I'd like to go back to an earlier thought. It has always seemed strange to me that the very words of the ancient scriptures should be considered sacred. But I begin to see that the reason books like the Bhagavad-Gita or the New Testament, the Egyptian Book of the Dead and other religious writings endure is that they actually do contain the spiritual element.

Chairman -- Precisely, for it is not the words in themselves, but the spiritual quality or element that brought them into being that makes them live through the ages. Certainly one will never become enlightened by repeating mantras or phrases or even whole chapters from this or that scripture. However, one should never take lightly any of these ancient traditions because underneath the words and the figures of speech you will invariably find, if you know how to interpret them, the pure essence of those archaic ideas implanted in early humanity by the "gods who walked among men." That is the wonder of the Gita or any expression that has in it a touch of divine wisdom: the more you read it, the fresher it becomes as another turn of thought, a deeper insight, or a larger vision is caught.

Martha -- That may be why Krishna pokes fun repeatedly at those who follow the letter of the law, the "unwise, who delight in the controversies of the Vedas" and look for "rewards in future births." He points to this three times in this one chapter, indicating that even at that early period people had begun to imprison the spirit of the teaching in the chains of mere words.

Chairman -- Well put, Martha, and it is good to link together all such references. For example, after Arjuna has given his reasons for not entering the fight, Krishna tells him that although his arguments are seemingly valid, he has been confused by the "letter of the law," that is, by the literal interpretation of the sacred truths. So what does Krishna do? Gradually he leads him into other channels of thought, giving him first the broad philosophical doctrine of the Sankhya-yoga or yoga of knowledge, then going straight into the practical, devotional way of buddhi-yoga where the intuitional and spiritual energies may find active expression in his life.

Robert -- That gives a marvelous insight into the compassion that filled Krishna: as you say, he leads Arjuna from where he stands to where he ought to be, from a negative rebellion against his circumstances into the sure path of his own dharma.

Chairman -- Without realizing it, we find ourselves viewing the whole battle of life from the mountaintop of our consciousness, and seeing the practical, devotional pathway as the true basis from which every action must be performed. Perhaps we had better continue with the reading:

The subject of the Vedas is the assemblage of the three qualities. Be thou free from these qualities, O Arjuna! Be free from the "pairs of opposites" and constant in the quality of sattwa, free from worldly anxiety and the desire to preserve present possessions, self-centered and uncontrolled by objects of mind or sense. As many benefits as there are in a tank stretching free on all sides, so many are there for a truth-realizing Brahman in all the Vedic rites.
Let, then, the motive for action be in the action itself, and not in the event. Do not be incited to actions by the hope of their reward, nor let thy life be spent in inaction. Firmly persisting in Yoga, perform thy duty, and laying aside all desire for any benefit to thyself from action, make the event equal to thee, whether it be success or failure. Equal-mindedness is called Yoga.

Hazel -- Could someone explain what the three qualities are which we are supposed to free ourselves from? And also how can we become free from the pairs of opposites which are so intimately a part of nature? This seems very difficult to understand.

Chairman -- The three "qualities" are the three gunas, called sattva, rajas, and tamas. Very generally defined, sattwa represents our spiritual and intelligent qualities; rajas, the driving and emotional energies which activate desire, passion, and the manifold derivatives of this very dual quality; while tamas has in it the elements of inertia, negativity, and stupor. Now these gunas or qualities are not limited to the human constitution, but flow in and through the fabric of universal being so that there is a constant interchange between humankind and surrounding nature. This is a very broad description, but as the various attributes and functions of these three qualities form a large part of the succeeding chapters, we can leave further elaboration until later.

The question remains: how may one free oneself from these qualities; and again how can we, while incarnated in bodies of flesh, free ourselves from the "pairs of opposites" which with the qualities are so vital a part of the universe? Any comments?

Mabel -- Krishna also suggests that we should free ourselves from "worldly anxiety and the desire to preserve present possessions." This seems to ask the impossible because, as we are living on this earth, all of this would appear to be a natural and inevitable part of our earth experience.

Ben -- I think there is a fine line here. If we put our personal will into meeting our problems, it is very easy to become anxious and frustrated, but if we could have more trust we would allow the divine will to do a little operating. This is what I am driving at: in this question of worldly anxiety and concern over possessions, it would seem to me we must endeavor to work absolutely with the divine will, and to hold firmly to this as an ideal. Then if we can aim toward this, I feel we can forget about all the rest, that is, where you or I fit into the picture, etc. And I don't mean either that we should turn away from our responsibilities with all their anxieties, for certainly no one wants to go off into some forest and become a hermit

Chairman -- Very true, and if there is one dominant note to the Gita, it is to do the duty that lies before us. If we can fulfill our "own natural duty," our swadharma, as we discussed earlier, with all that this implies, then we need not bother about "worldly anxiety or present possessions." In themselves are harmless, but it is when they assume mastery over our mind or emotions that they damage the soul.

What Krishna is doing again and again is to lift Arjuna's consciousness away from petty concern for himself into the wide, free reaches of the spirit. He does not ask him to leave his duty; but, on the contrary, to perform it with full devotion to its commands. Nor does he expect Arjuna to achieve the equal-mindedness of the sage in one lifetime. He does hope, however, that he will lift his eyes "unto the hills," so that once having seen the light of sattva or truth, he will never rest content in the valleys of inertia and ignorance.

All the great teachers have followed the same pattern of instruction. The Sermon on the Mount is not meant for the weak in spirit; it takes strong souls to attempt to live its behests. But the vision is given, and it is left to the individual, no matter how often he stumble, to hold that vision ever before him.

Henk -- That is beautiful; and may I now ask a question that has troubled me for years? It is about the "tank stretching free on all sides." I do not understand what Krishna means by this statement, and I would very much like to hear what you or others might have to say on this.

Chairman--You are not alone in this, Henk. In fact, I have been asked this a number of times by students of the Gita in different countries, perhaps chiefly because the English translation is rather confusing. We must remember that Sanskrit is a rich and compact language and at times a few words or combinations of words may take one or more sentences in English or any European tongue to convey even an approximation of the correct meaning. Now Judge did not pretend to be a Sanskrit scholar any more than I do, but he did understand the profundities of ancient Hindu thought; and while his translation here, I admit, is obscure, it is not wrong. Let me read you Radhakrishnan's rendering which is not much clearer than Judge's, but as he uses different words it may help:

"As is the use of a pond in a place flooded with water everywhere, so is that of all the Vedas for the Brahmin who understands."

Frank -- In other words, once you have the chance to swim in the ocean you do not care for a swimming pool, and so the Brahmin who understands the truth doesn't need the Vedic rites.

Chairman -- That's it exactly. The one who has the ocean of truth stretching endlessly before him will never be content with the "tank" or "pond" of formal rites, even though he can perceive in them the universal wisdom. He would prefer the "tank stretching free on all sides," flooded with the waters of knowledge, rather than be confined by the literalism of any written form of truth -- even the Vedas. Does that help at all?

Henk -- I am very grateful. It is the first time I have understood this, and I see it is really not so difficult after all.

Martha -- I was thinking that the clinging to Vedic traditions and old tenets or beliefs might be linked up with the admonition to cast off all desire for possessions. One of the most subtle "possessions" would seem to be the desire to hold tightly to the little truth we may have, and to delight merely in philosophical controversy, forgetting that such intellectual possessions may actually cramp the expansion of the soul.

Chairman -- Indeed, and we have to watch ourselves constantly lest we become psychologized by the very words and phrases we come to love because we read them so often. We tend to become enamored of the vehicle instead of keeping our mind and consciousness free and open to the ever flowing current of truth.

"Let then the motive for action be in the action itself, and not in the event" -- we come now to one of the most fruitful themes of the Gita, but our time is gone, so let us start with this paragraph at our next gathering.

Chapter 5