Notes of a Discussion on the Bhagavad-Gita - James A. Long, Chairman
(From Sunrise, September 1959. Copyright © 1959 by Theosophical University Press.)
Chairman-- Who would like to gather up the threads of our last get-together? Tom?
Tom-- Well, there were so many angles to the questions of motive and non-attachment that we spent the whole evening discussing them. We thought we might reach the end of Chapter 2, but we couldn't. At any rate, we came to the part where Arjuna asks Krishna to describe to him what a "wise and devoted man" is like; what does he say and where does he live, and does he act and move like the rest of us? And Krishna tells him that
A man is said to be confirmed in spiritual knowledge when he forsaketh every desire which entereth into his heart, and of himself is happy and content in the Self through the Self. His mind is undisturbed in adversity; he is happy and contented in prosperity, and he is a stranger to anxiety, fear and anger.
Such a man is called a Muni or sage because he has learned how to meet every experience that comes with equilibrium.
Chairman-- One moment, please. Arjuna's question as to where such a "wise man" would live and whether he would act and speak like other men is a perfectly natural one, as he has in mind the custom then prevailing among his own people which allowed a man, after he had completed his duties to his family as a householder, to renounce all worldly ties and devote the remainder of his years to spiritual concerns.
Krishna, however, is not suggesting to Arjuna that those who sincerely aspire to knowledge must become hermits. On the contrary, as is made clear all through, the path of action is stressed -- action rooted in devotion to wisdom -- the Gita itself being called at the end of each chapter Brahma-vidya or "the science or wisdom of the Supreme." I bring this up now so that we don't get the misleading notion that Krishna encourages the renunciation of responsibility in order to become "spiritual," as some today of both the West and the East would have us believe.
Dan -- I am awfully glad you mentioned this, because the question rather annoyed me. Still I admit to finding this matter of non-attachment difficult to reconcile with Krishna's repeated injunction to Arjuna to fulfill every aspect of his duty. I don't see how we can properly meet our responsibilities as husbands, fathers and businessmen if we do not look ahead and weigh the results of what we think and do.
Chairman -- The Gita says we should act without attachment; but it does not say without giving thought to the outcome of our acts. Certainly we are expected as mature men and women to muster all our forethought and vision and purpose in the fulfillment of our responsibilities -- else why act at all? Nevertheless, we have also to tread a razor's edge of discrimination between a foolish disregard of the consequences of our deeds, and an over-anxiety as to the effect on others, as well as on ourselves, of the causes we set in motion. The lines of our dharma -- which means of our natural "duty" or "path" or "field of service" -- are at times hard to discern, but as we grow in trust we shall find our vision will clear and our ability to put that vision into action increase.
Tom -- I guess that is what most of us need: less anxiety as to how things will turn out and a greater trust.
Chairman -- Less anxiety and more trust -- that is it. In fact, to me it is the whole secret of inner balance or true non-attachment. Every moment of our lives we human beings are acting and reacting, making karma of one type or another, and the interplay of this manifold karma is bound to have reverberations not only on ourselves but on all within the universe. So how could you or I or anyone determine with any degree of wisdom what would be the proper and right effect of this or that cause? Yet how often we worry and exhaust ourselves, nervously and physically, over things that are beyond our control, forgetful that it is hardly our responsibility or dharma to adjust the operations of the higher law. After all, as we have discussed many times, it is motive, the deep impelling force in our lives, that should be our full concern, for it and it alone will influence our future. But let us continue, if you will, Tom.
Tom -- Krishna then elaborates on what a person who has control over himself is like:
He is confirmed in spiritual knowledge, when, like the tortoise, he can draw in all his senses and restrain them from their wonted purposes. The hungry man loseth sight of every other object but the gratification of his appetite, and when he is become acquainted with the Supreme, be loseth all taste for objects of whatever kind.
Ray -- You say it is the impelling motive of our lives that counts in the final reckoning. Well, I have thought a lot about this and I feel there is more to the problem of non-attachment than meets the eye. We can make rules and determine not to feel anger or hate or fear, and so forth, and maybe we can learn how to control any outer display of feeling. But inside we are apt to continue to feel anger or resentment, and even hate mentally. So it seems to, me there is a big distinction here between our physical actions, which all of us have to watch carefully, and our secret mental impulses which no one but ourselves is aware of.
Chairman -- You have put your finger on the very point touched on in the last part read by Tom, though in the translation the meaning I feel has become somewhat obscured. Some time ago I had several translations looked into, and while none of them is too clear, the general idea as I understand it seems to be this: "The objects of sense (of our desires and appetites), but not the taste (or the longing) for them, fall away from the embodied soul who abstains from feeding on them; but when the Supreme is seen, then even the taste (or the longing for these lower things) falls away."
Now if I caught your thought, Ray, that is what you were referring to: that if we simply control the outer habits of our lives, and do not straighten out our mental and emotional currents, we are worse off than the hungry man who thinks of nothing else but gratifying his appetite. In fact, we are kidding ourselves, because if the longing and the hunger for our old habits of thought still remain, we have not handled the difficulty at its source. But, as Krishna says, once we see, or rather feel a touch of "the Supreme" within our consciousness, then the taste for these lesser things will fall away, and our inner aspiration will dominate and in time purify these outer desires. We cannot afford to relax, but must be ever vigilant, as Krishna warns Arjuna:
The tumultuous senses and organs hurry away by force the heart even of the wise man who striveth after perfection. Let a man, restraining all these, remain in devotion at rest in me, his true self; for he who hath his senses and organs in control possesses spiritual knowledge.
He who attendeth to the inclinations of the senses, in them hath a concern; from this concern is created passion, from passion anger, from anger is produced delusion, from delusion a loss of the memory, from the loss of memory loss of discrimination, and from loss of discrimination loss of all. But he who, free from attachment or repulsion for objects, experienceth them through the senses and organs, with his heart obedient to his will, attains to tranquillity of thought. And this tranquil state attained, therefrom shall soon result a separation from all troubles; and his mind being thus at ease, fixed upon one object, it embraceth wisdom from all sides.
I can feel the thoughts bursting round the room as to the impossibility of our ever being able to "embrace wisdom from all sides." Of course we aren't expected to, and I for one have no interest in those who preach "self-realization" in a single lifetime! One may indeed catch glimpses of great beauty and awareness of something beyond the ordinary, but truly to "realize" the self in the greater Self does not come easily but is earned only after lifetimes of dedication to the higher life.
Dan -- I'd like to throw another question or two in here. Does Krishna mean we shouldn't even feel a sense of joy when something wonderful happens, or any sadness or dejection of spirit when things go wrong? These emotions are a part of our very lives, and I can't see how we can get rid of them. In fact, why should we, like the tortoise, have to draw in all our sensitivities and have no feeling at all?
Irving -- But that is not what Krishna says. He does not mean we shouldn't use our senses, but that we shouldn't be used by them. We are certainly not expected to be frozen images of supposed saints!
Stephen --I would like to ask a question: are we considering all of this from the point of view of Krishna, or from the standpoint of Arjuna as representing ourselves?
Chairman -- Which would you prefer? If you like you can start with Krishna and work on down!
Stephen -- I am serious about this. It would seem there is more than one way to look at this matter of non-attachment and the control of our emotions and all these elements in our nature that distract us so constantly. From the view of one who is just beginning to think about these things, but who wants very much to improve himself, he will soon realize that first he will have to be less personal about his own happiness or difficulties, and try to feel more keenly for others, and recognize that they too are faced with the same kind of struggles that he is. But from the point of view of a person who is nearing the condition that Krishna describes, the answer might seem to us almost inhuman, because a sage or a Muni might not be at all moved by what we consider terrible conditions, simply because he wouldn't view these things in a personal way.
Ellen -- Maybe that is what is meant by the phrase: "he is a stranger to anxiety, fear, and anger." The word "stranger" seems to be the important one here because if we could reach toward a more impersonal area of understanding, we would not have to subdue our feelings since by then we would have become a "stranger" to them. There would no longer be the strong personal inclination to get all worked up over what would clearly be seen as non-essential or, at most, necessary stages in our growth.
Chairman -- He would see the larger karma behind it all, and know that those very experiences will help bring the soul to birth, and that after the pain of growth will come the joy of inner triumph that will far surpass the fleeting pleasure of sense enjoyment. He might appear cold and even cruel, but it is the ruthlessness born of a deepfelt compassion which knows, as does the surgeon, that he must at times cut and sever if he is to allow the soul to cleanse and heal itself.
Marie -- That is beautiful. I was thinking too that as our physical senses so often seem to bewilder rather than to clarify things, Krishna might be trying to illustrate to Arjuna the ideal state of consciousness where all these "tumultuous senses," which so easily "hurry away by force" our better judgment, would be under the guidance of our higher self, quieted down so that the real person would have a chance to take over.
Chairman -- Exactly, and while none of us can hope to attain the equal-mindedness of a sage, even a little of the "true devotion," as Krishna tells Arjuna, will act as a guide and protection.
Susan -- The thought comes to me that it is really the direction and use of our senses by our will that counts. If they are held in check by our higher intelligence or spiritual will, then only good can result. I am reminded of that phrase from one of the Psalms: "Be still, and know that I am God." Perhaps if we could still the clamor of our desires, our discrimination could be used to better purpose.
Jack -- Well, I always thought that the sage was one whose senses were actually more alive than the ordinary person: he could see more clearly, hear more keenly, and feel more sensitively than we, but if he has to withdraw all his senses, like the tortoise, then I don't see how this jibes. Of course, we know that certain birds and animals can see and hear with greater acuteness than humans and can sense danger by the type of vibrations they feel, etc. Evidently we have lost that particular type of physical sense report, and even our range of vision takes in little more than one octave. But when we consider the likelihood, as some scientists are now hinting, of our developing in the future even higher senses than we know of today, it would seem we are not expected to do away with our present senses but, on the contrary, to learn how to manage them and, as we progress, utilize them to an even greater degree.
Chairman -- I couldn't agree more heartily, Jack, that we would get completely off course if we tried to get rid of our senses. Why on earth would nature have provided us with these various streams and outlets of energies if we were not expected to treat them with respect and to use them to the full? It is true that Krishna, as do all the great teachers, makes clear the difficulties that will accrue if we concern ourselves solely with our desires and sense organs. We are not asked to destroy them, but rather to "restrain them from their wonted purposes." This is nothing more nor less than allowing the charioteer within to guide the reins of our minds so that the horses of our desires do not go off in wild pursuit of this or that "object of sense." As we aspire to live the higher life of the soul we shall automatically be helping all the lesser lives that make up our physical organism to grow in accordance with their own natural dharma or path of service. Again, it is all a matter of recognizing first and foremost that a human being in his inmost self is rooted in the Supreme Self, to use the Gita term, one in essence with the universal Divine Intelligence, and that while he is . . . Yes, Ernest, did you want to add something?
Ernest -- I have always felt that what we had to do was to try, as you put it, to feel ourselves as the charioteer guiding the reins of these restive horses, and that the writer of this poem realized full well the task we all have in controlling the "tumultuous senses." It is not a matter, I feel, of trying to restrain them by a sudden display of force, but rather by a constant effort to steady them down, as it were; and obviously the great thing for us is to find our link with our real Self, because it is that alone which has the power to direct our effort. Spiritual knowledge is truly a steadying and restraining influence in our lives.
Chairman --That is beautifully put, Ernest, and reaches straight to the core of Krishna's expressions. Once the soul attains to singleness of purpose, and the distracting pulls of the desire nature are quieted, then the mind (the reins) will feel the guidance of the charioteer and can lead the chariot (our body) onto its proper courses. And who is the charioteer but the Krishna-element in our nature, the buddhi-essence which is linked irrevocably with our divine Self or Atman, itself one with the "Supreme" or Brahman, the Divine Intelligence that enlivens every portion of the universe? That is why Krishna speaks of the "wise man" as one whose desires are centered in his heart, content "in the Self through the Self" or Atman, content because he knows that whatever happens, whether favorable or unfavorable, it is all part of the pattern of compassion.
But let us get on with the Gita. Hazel, would you care to read to the end of the chapter?
Hazel -- How can a man, Krishna asks, whose mind and heart are troubled ever attain happiness? And he gives this answer:
The uncontrolled heart, following the dictates of the moving passions, snatcheth away his spiritual knowledge, as the storm the bark upon the raging ocean. Therefore, O great armed one, he is possessed of spiritual knowledge whose senses are withheld from objects of sense. . . .
The man whose desires enter his heart, all waters run into the unswelling passive ocean, which, though ever full, yet does not quit its bed, obtaineth happiness, not he who lusteth in his lusts.
As I read Krishna's words, I keep thinking how like in clarity and power they are to a Bach fugue, with point and counterpoint carrying its message right to our hearts, so that the dominant theme of devotion is enhanced by well-chosen counter-themes on the need for self-discipline.
The man who, having abandoned all desires, acts without covetousness, selfishness, or pride, deeming himself neither actor nor possessor, attains to rest.
This, O son of Pritha, is dependence upon the Supreme Spirit, and he who possesseth it goeth no more astray; having obtained it, if therein established at the hour of death, he passeth on to Nirvana in the Supreme.
Dan -- Well, that last verse Hazel read contains plenty of dynamite! I almost wondered if I was hearing a text on death-bed repentance. What is the difference between Krishna's statement that he who possesses "dependence upon the Supreme Spirit" at the hour of death will go no more astray and will reach to Nirvana, and the practice of the Roman Church that assures a man, no matter what horrible crimes he has committed during the whole of his life, if he will just repent on his deathbed he will receive absolution and all his sins will be forgiven?
Chairman -- All the difference in the world. In the first place, the death-bed repentance is a cruel distortion of a once beautiful and profound truth: that no matter what a person has done in life, or how the scales seem to be stacked against him, what counts either for or against him in the hour of death is what he is -- not what the world has judged him to be, or what he himself may think he is, but what he is. Naked and alone, his soul is tried before the tribunal of his higher self.
Unfortunately, this once occult truth has been terribly exploited, so that the death-bed repentance of today bears little resemblance to the original thought, making it appear that regardless of a person's character (as well as his actions), if he merely "believes in Jesus" at the hour of death and wants to do right, then all his past errors will be forgiven and he will receive holy absolution. Karma is karma, and if a man has sown "corruption" he will "reap corruption"; but "he that soweth to the Spirit shall of the Spirit reap life everlasting."
Nevertheless, the idea of repentance has, as said, an occult basis in that at the moment of dying a most sacred opportunity is given for the individual to relive his entire life in the fullness of memory, so that all he has done and thought and aspired toward flashes before the mind's eye. If the sum total of his character is predominantly decent and fine, regardless of the numerous mistakes he undoubtedly has made, he has the chance within the privacy of his own soul to register a vow to correct the wrong he has done to others and to live henceforth more closely in line with his higher impulses.
If you want to call this "forgiveness" in the sense that his inner self recognizes the vow to "sin no more," and that he is ready to meet the consequences of his wrongdoing in some future existence, all right. But only the individual can "forgive" himself. There is no god nor priest, no Krishna, Christ, nor Buddha who can intervene between him and his karma, or erase one jot or tittle of his acts. What a person has sown, he alone must atone for. While nature is rigid and uncompromising in her balancing of effect to cause, she is ever merciful in design. Thus the average individual, who is neither very good nor exceptionally bad, is allowed quietly to slip into the after-death states, which consist of a natural purification (purgatory, if you like) wherein all the lower elements are cast off so that the soul, refined and cleansed, can then enter its own self-made "heaven world' of peace and rest.
Now to get back to what Krishna says in this closing verse. We have to bear in mind that the Gita is talking about those exceedingly rare individuals who have already attained during life union or atonement with their own divine self or atman, and thus possess absolute trust or reliance on the "Supreme Spirit" or Brahman. Hence when the "hour of death" comes, they are prepared to enter the condition of complete omniscience called here Brahma-Nirvana -- wherein all that is material and earthly is dissolved, "blown out," and only the pure consciousness of Divinity remains.
Now if one is able to attain such an exalted and nonworldly state of being, there is no call for him to return again to earthly existence, unless perchance he belongs to that compassionate line of the Christs and Krishnas who periodically take birth in order to help humanity rise out of its despair and take up anew the battle of self-conquest.
Well, we have gone a long distance in thought this evening, and while we have reached the end of Chapter 2 we cannot say we have finished it. Obviously there will never be any final answers, as our discussions together are primarily to expand our thinking and to penetrate as far as our intuition will allow the deeper levels of the world's sacred writings, including the Gita. On the surface it may seem as if some of the ideas we talk about here have little bearing on the problems and responsibilities which each of us has to face, but that is not true, for the very contact in thought and aspiration with these grand ideals leaves its impress on the whole of our nature.
Next time we can try Chapter 3, unless any of you has a particular portion of the book you would care to discuss first.