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

Chapter 8

Elements of Sacrifice

Bhagvad-Gita, Chapter 3, cont.
(From Sunrise, June 1960. Copyright © 1960 by Theosophical University Press.)

Jack -- When we stopped last time with the part in the Gita about the cow of plenty granting our wishes, and the "gods nourishing men" and we them, I felt almost irritated. Up to then I had really enjoyed our discussions, but this seems just like petitioning God to answer every selfish whim -- something I never could agree with.

Marie -- But that is simply Oriental imagery. All their writings, especially the Upanishads, are full of this kind of symbolism, and I find it fascinating to try to work out what is meant.

Jack -- Well, I must say I prefer a more straightforward approach. I realize of course that we can't take all of this literally, but if these ancient writers had intended to be of help to us in spiritual matters, why didn't they use plain language?

Chairman -- That is just what they did -- they used analogies and figures of speech which were in common currency at the time the Gita was written down, around the 5th century BC, which as you know was much later than Krishna, who is supposed to have lived somewhat over 5000 years ago. With changing times and the inevitable differences in both culture and temperament between the Hindus of that period and ourselves today, we can't expect that either their methods of teaching or their usage of metaphor and symbol will be similar to our own. But the philosophic ideas which give the Gita its spiritual content are timeless, and hence as applicable to us of the twentieth century as they were when Krishna discoursed with Arjuna on the imperishable truths of "ancient times."

So let us not be disturbed by the husk or shell in which the seed of wisdom may at various times be hidden. Besides, it is a dangerous practice to isolate a single phrase or sentence and pick it to bits without studying it in relation to the thoughts which precede and follow it. By itself, it can often be made to have a limited if not contrary meaning to what it reveals if viewed in context and in its full setting.

Perhaps we should read this passage now and see what the discussion brings forth. Wilbur, would you care to do this, starting on page 23 of chapter 3?

Wilber -- If I may, I would like to go back a little further and include Krishna's preceding statement that action is necessary to life on earth, because of the wonderful point he makes that all acts performed other than as a "sacrifice" unto the divine binds us to those actions. I know we discussed this before, but I have the feeling we have to keep it in mind if we are going to understand about the gods nourishing us, and we them;

The journey of thy mortal frame cannot be accomplished by inaction. All actions performed other than as sacrifice unto God make the actor bound by action. Abandon, then, O son of Kunti, all selfish motives, and in action perform thy duty for him alone. When in ancient times the lord of creatures had formed mankind, and at the same time appointed his worship, he spoke and said:
"With this worship, pray for increase, and let it be for you Kamaduk, the cow of plenty, on which ye shall depend for the accomplishment of all your wishes. With this nourish the Gods, that the Gods may nourish you; thus mutually nourishing ye shall obtain the highest felicity. The Gods being nourished by worship with sacrifice, will grant you the enjoyment of your wishes. He who enjoyeth what hath been given unto him by them, and offereth not a portion unto them, is even as a thief."

Ernest -- This particular portion has always been a puzzle: why the gods, who are so greatly evolved, so high in knowledge and understanding, should require our nourishing or our worship. In the ordinary sense, we rather repudiate the idea of having to worship anything, even great and heroic men who stand well above average folk, and I think there is much to be said for this attitude. I would like to hear some opinions on this, because it is apparent there is some kind of interaction between ourselves and the gods.

Paul -- Or between man and his God! I agree with Jack, that if we substitute God in the singular for gods in the plural, there seems little difference between the Oriental's offering "sacrifice" to the "lord of creatures who formed mankind" and us Occidentals who worship our Creator. Both appear to propitiate some form of Deity in order to get benefits.

Chairman -- The natural tendency of the soul is to yearn for inspiration and guidance from "above" or "outside" of itself, and the urge to worship or venerate the Divine has taken a variety of forms through the ages, from hymns to the lamb, prayers to Allah, the offering of sacrificial butter, fruit, or flowers to the sacred cow or Kamaduk, to the quiet rededication of the soul in the privacy of one's own closet. If we strip off the trappings of ritual and custom, we find no radical difference, for every human being, whether he likes to admit it or not, is seeking the "accomplishment" of his wishes, the fulfillment of his deepest aspirations.

Ned -- But what does Krishna mean when he speaks of the "gods being nourished by worship with sacrifice"? Generally when we think of sacrifice, we mean giving up something we cherish or would very much like to do; as when parents, for example, will sacrifice their own pleasures or advancement so that their children may have a good education, and so forth. It is a willing sacrifice and often very unselfish and beautiful; but I thought Krishna may have had something deeper in mind even than this.

Irving -- Isn't every right action in a sense a sacrifice?

Trudy -- I wonder if it is possible for us to define what Krishna meant. How can we know what actions are truly a sacrifice, and therefore of benefit to something greater than ourselves, and what are acts done merely for our own sake?

Martha -- The word "sacrifice" holds its own answer -- to "make sacred." If in our devotions we hold the highest always in view, then surely even the simplest duty becomes a sacred offering.

Chairman -- That's wonderful, Martha. Every act of pure devotion is on a par with the Divine, and hence becomes a "sacred offering" on the altar of the gods. I think Trudy also touched a real key when she spoke of those actions as having the quality of sacrifice which are of "benefit to something greater than ourselves." No one of us can know the full beauty and texture of the supreme sacrifice that Krishna is envisioning here. Nevertheless, every time we act out of the spontaneity of the heart, without thought of results and with no selfish interest whatsoever, we are literally "nourishing the gods," and they in their turn automatically nourish us with the invigorating current of their selfless devotion.

Tom -- We could look at it perhaps as though we have a door inside leading to our higher self, and when we act in the right way we open that door and give something of ourselves, and in the process we "nourish the gods." At the same time something comes through from the side of the gods to us; but when we act only for ourselves, then the door is neglected and may be completely closed.

Chairman -- When a person offers the fullness of devotion to the highest within him, he does indeed open a door to his inner god, which is identic in essence with the gods who are nothing more nor less than fuller-blown expressions of human beings who have grown to conscious godhood. Deity is one, regardless of its vehicle, and as we add the fuel of devotion to the fire of our own godspark we instantaneously fan the flame of devotion in every godspark through space, linking each and all in a cosmic brotherhood with the central fire of Divinity. That is why Krishna reminds Arjuna repeatedly that no matter in what way people make sacrifice, they "involuntarily worship me" for "I am the same to all creatures," knowing neither hatred nor favor, but "those who serve me with love dwell in me and I in them." (ch. 9)

Martha -- The use of your word devotion strikes fire in my own heart, for this relationship between gods and men Krishna says here stems from the dawn of creation when the "lord of creatures" taught mankind how to worship and offer sacrifice. It suggests an intimacy of spirit which once was very close but which has long since broken down under the impact of our material interests. The great question is, how to renew the contact? Of course, it must be an individual awakening, that I realize.

Ellen -- The gods spoken of in the Gita seem to have had a vital interest in our welfare, yet they weren't so human in character as to take on all our faults and weaknesses as did the gods of the Greek pantheon. In the Bible, however, once the human race was created, God apparently left us on our own, though in the New Testament Jesus, as his son, is said to have made the link for us again. Even so, there appears little likelihood of our ever making contact with the gods.

Frank -- I was thinking along those very lines, particularly of Genesis. As Martha said, there evidently was a time when the gods were closely involved in our progress and tried hard to leave their imprint upon us. In the first chapter we are told how the Lord God strolled in the cool of the garden and talked with Adam and Eve, and later how he walked along with Enoch; and then a few chapters on, how the sons of God, finding the daughters of men were fair, took them for wives, and their children became "mighty men." We all know the rest of the story, and how with the rapid population increase and the roll of the cycles evil came upon the earth, so that God did indeed repent he had ever started humanity off and decided to destroy the lot. But at the last minute Noah, who was "a just man and perfect," reestablished God's confidence in the human species and thus was given a means whereby we all might have another chance. The point here is that apparently Noah had, through his innate goodness of heart, offered the proper "'sacrifice" which automatically opened the door to divine intervention and be was "saved" and thereby became the "plank of salvation" for all future generations of human beings.

Chairman -- All these stories about God and the gods and early mankind found in the various religions and mythologies of East and West are simply different ways of reminding us that deep within each individual is a spark of godhood. It is our task, then, once we begin self-consciously to think and knowingly to choose good from evil, to make of ourselves fit food for the gods, because we cannot exist one moment, much less evolve, without their divine sustenance. I am not talking about physical food, that is obvious; I am talking about the food which is as much a part of their essence as it is of ours. In this matter of growth and enlightenment, there is no limit to the interchange of help and nourishment between gods and men, or between the Elohim, Allah, Brahma, and the human soul. It is a two-way street all along the line; in fact, there is a far closer connection between ourselves and every single evolving unit throughout the whole hierarchy of existence than we realize.

But let us see how Krishna develops his theme. After reminding Arjuna that those who enjoy what the gods give without offering "a portion unto them" are as thieves, he explains that those who take of what remains after the gods have been provided for will be purified of their transgressions, whereas those who prepare food solely for themselves eat the bread of "sin." The reference clearly is not to physical food, but to those qualities of heart and mind which, if offered freely to the god-part within us, will help to purify us of error, whereas those who prepare their offering solely for their own sake will reap nothing but unhappiness. Then follow two verses which have caused a great deal of speculation among Gita students in the West:

Beings are nourished by food, food is produced by rain, rain comes from sacrifice, and sacrifice is performed by action.
Know that action comes from the Supreme Spirit who is one; wherefore the all-pervading Spirit is at all times present in the sacrifice.

Joan -- I have heard all sorts of thoughts about this, but none of them satisfy me. In fact, several of us discussed this very point about rain coming from sacrifice, but I didn't feel anyone came up with the right solution. Not that I am expecting a certain answer, because I don't know what to expect; but I do feel that when I hear the right answer I will know it.

Chairman -- No one ever gets the "right answer" from someone else, whether it concerns rain or sacrifice or what Krishna means by "action in inaction." We may get ideas aplenty, and good ones too, from others, all of which may serve to stimulate our thinking, but the truly right answer for each of us has to come from our inmost self. Once we get it, we will know it. So let's hear all the ideas we can and see what happens. Then when we part this evening, we can drop them completely from our minds and let our consciousness come up with whatever is right for each of us at this time. Later, we may reverse our concept entirely as we see a larger facet of truth. Tom, you had something you wanted to say?

Tom -- Well, the first part here, that all creatures are nourished by food and that food is produced by rain is simple, for every kingdom from man to mineral is sustained by food, and each offers a part of its very life to the kingdoms above it on up to the human, so that a natural exchange of vitality and energy takes place among them, at least physically. And of course rain is a necessary factor to the maintenance of all organic life. Even human beings can go days, and weeks perhaps, without sleep or food and still survive, but unless they have water (or rain) they die. The rub comes when Krishna categorically states that "rain comes from sacrifice." If I were a scientist, I think I'd want some proof of this. Yet even as I say this, I wonder if the present breakthrough into space isn't bringing remarkable new evidence of an interchange of some form of energy between earth and the celestial regions.

Hazel -- Recently I was leafing through Fraser's one-volume edition of The Golden Bough, that fascinating compilation of the myths and folk-customs of ancient peoples and tribes, and found a large section devoted to the magical control of the elements, particularly of the rain. He noted that usually the medicine men and chiefs were the rain-makers, since it was believed that their superior knowledge of nature's laws best equipped them to intercede with the rain gods. If there was too much rain, then the sun and the wind gods were propitiated, either to burn or drive the clouds away; or if a drought occurred, the appropriate sacrifices were performed to entice the clouds to gather overhead and empty their contents on the parched land. All sorts of ceremonial rites were practiced. Mainly they followed the theory that "like attracts like," using water if rain was desired; or fire, to stop the rain. Krishna's statement here about "rain coming from sacrifice" reminded me of one of the aboriginal tribes in Central Australia who believe that it is their ceremonies, helped on of course by the spirits of their ancestors, which generate the rain.

Chairman -- Thank you very much, Hazel. Certainly all ancient peoples, civilized and primitive alike, recognized the powerful connection between the cosmic forces and mankind. Whether human beings affect the weather and the climate more dynamically than the elements affect humanity would be as difficult to determine as the proverbial chicken and the egg. What but manifestations of energy are the amazing meteorological phenomena we experience on earth -- lightning and the winds, the magnetic and electric storms, the auroras at the poles, to say nothing of the cosmic and x-rays streaming to us from outer space and from and through the sun? And what is energy but an expression in manifold forms and a multiplicity of vehicles of Divinity in. action? We note the varying gradations of living beings in a universe, from the atom up through the lower kingdoms to the human, but seldom take into account the possibility that the suns and stars, the nebulae and comets, may also house the seed of Deity. If the rain brings refreshment to plant and beast and to our physical body, why couldn't it carry the force of a divine rejuvenation to the human soul?

Where is all this leading? To the plain fact that nothing exists in the entire cosmos apart from Divinity -- godsparks all -- at the core of the atom and the sun, at the heart of man.

Dan -- Do you mean there is a chain of responsibility linking all of us together? The thought is terrific because it implies that even the littlest act of everyday will have an impact on every other portion of the universe. If there is this connection between us, for instance, and the rain -- well, I can't find how to say what I want. . . .

Chairman -- An intangible and invisible connection, but nonetheless real, not only between the rain and man, but between every atom of space both above and beneath the human sphere. But go on, Dan, I didn't mean to stop you; I simply wanted you to include this in your picture.

Dan -- I'm glad you did. I was trying to get this thought out: if there is this line of communication or interaction among all the kingdoms, then whatever we think or do could make an enormous difference, not only to ourselves but to the welfare or otherwise of even the most distant nebula.

Jack -- But human actions then would take on an importance quite out of proportion to what we put into them, and I can't see that, because most of what we do is pretty insignificant compared to the goings-on in the solar system, for example.

Chairman -- Nothing is insignificant, because there is not a thought or act but will affect for good or ill the entire economy of nature. The effect may be infinitesimal, but it is there. That means that what and how we think and feel is vastly important, and inevitably will send its reverberations throughout the gamut of nature, peregrinating along the unseen channels of circulation, to return upon us some time in future ages either as a blessing and stimulus to growth, or as a stern reminder to strengthen our weak spots and purify our motives.

No, there is no limitation to the practical application of this interdependence among all kingdoms, for there is indeed a brotherhood which takes in the whole hierarchy of life. Just as the Buddhas are often depicted in sculpture or painting with one hand upraised in recognition of the light above and of those beings who are higher in stature and growth than they, and their other hand reaching down toward us in a gesture of help and encouragement, so is there a constant sacrifice or interchange of nourishment between one kingdom and another. "As above, so below" and vice versa. Thus when Krishna speaks of the gods nourishing man and man nourishing the gods, and the rain coming from sacrifice and sacrifice from right action, which itself is linked with the Supreme Spirit which is all-pervading, he is speaking literally -- spiritually and materially.

Joan -- That helps a great deal. I had never thought of it before in this light, but it feels very right.

Chairman -- When an individual conquers some part of his nature, some habit of thought which has been a part of his character but which he knows he must crucify and so offers it as a sacrifice on the altar of spiritual growth, isn't it true that a refreshing something, which we can call rain, waters the flower of the soul and allows it to bloom a little more fully? The spiritual fountains of the gods rain their strength into our soul and we grow and become strengthened and a more valuable instrument in their service.

Joan -- Lovely! I have just realized something. The word sacrifice I think has led me astray because it always appeared to mean sacrificing something big, but the sacrifice could be even the smallest thing. We don't have to wait, we can start every day.

Chairman -- It is the quality of a thought that is the decisive factor, not its size!

Martha -- Wouldn't the analogy of simple sunlight, to change the metaphor for a moment, illustrate how a loving thought might reach out to another? We say the sun radiates; those who need it and find it receive help; those who run from it or bury themselves in the shadows, don't. There is such a thing as a radiating love which is indefinable -- like the sun it doesn't seek out one individual, one blade of grass, or one forest. It is a far-flung influence.

Chairman -- You are so right, Martha, whether we speak of the rain or the sun or human thought, there is a radiation, an offering of itself to the whole of nature and by so much will the four quarters of the universe be uplifted. But if we sacrifice merely in order that the spiritual dew of our higher self will make our soul grow, we have already negated its potency. We are so attached to what we hope will result from our effort that the fruit of our sacrifice has spoiled before it could mature.

So let us live and work, wherever our duties lie, quietly and simply, unmindful of the events that may come, and we will indeed help on the wheel of progress. To adapt the ancient maxim: For every step we take in the direction of Divinity, Divinity is compelled to move that far in our direction.

Again we have covered but a single page of the Gita -- and there is a good deal more that could have been said. But even here we must not look to results! I hope you have received as much from this discussion as I have.

Chapter 9