Bhagavad Gita Chapter XVI Passion-Struggle

The chapter begins with a list of things innate in those in whom the impulse towards liberation is becoming strong: they are said to be of divine nature. Those who fear it, cling to their own individuality and hate competing individualities, are of demoniac nature.

The chart below sets out the present list, alongside XIII.7–10 (qualities to be cultivated by a seeker of Knowledge), and the programme of Austerity in XVII, and XVIII 42–14 which identifies actions ‘natural’ to Brahmins, warriors, businessmen, and men of service.

Many of them appear in more than one list; for instance, dhti or firmness is said to be natural to a warrior; nevertheless XIII says it is to be cultivated by Knowledge-seekers, and by all who desire liberation, according to XVI. It is clear that these ‘innate’ qualities, or actions as they are called in XVIII, are not self-sufficient. Compare a talent for music, which has to be arduously developed if it is to show its full capacity.

Qualities to be cultivated by karma-yogin-s, listed by Chapters

  XVIXVIIXVIII  leading to Knowledge
      Chapter XIII
 (occurring in four lists )
(occurring in three lists)
  steady yogaoBrahmin
(occurring in two lists )
 purity of essenceoo
  giving up fruitsoo
 no prideo
(occurring in one list )
  realization: all is pain
  yoga meditation on God
  steadiness in self-Knowledge
  freedom as goal
 no angero
 no slandero
  no cravingo
  no ficklenesso
  not injuringo
  brahmacarya (chastity)o
  true and beneficial speecho

There are three which appear in all four lists: self-control, uprightness and purity. Seven appear in three lists: worship, steady yoga, gift, austerity (which covers a very wide field of conduct), peace, firmness, non-violence. Often the Sanskrit word is exactly the same. (There are some fine distinctions which are irrelevant for practice.)

Some critics point to what they call the negative nature of the lists. Of the ten qualities just mentioned, Giving would be (they say) the only positive act of benevolence. The Gītā view is that most material sufferings could be fairly easily remedied if the basic nature of those concerned were purified. Famines caused by natural disasters are quickly relieved by national or international co-operation. But famines caused by civil or other wars (the vast majority) go on and on; gifts of food from outside are only palliative. The Gītā does not agree with the comment of Karl Marx: ‘The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways: the point is, to change it.’ Yoga would say: ‘The philosophers have only interpreted human nature in various ways: the point is, to change it.’ The objection that human nature cannot be changed is patently untrue: there are, and always have been, regions of the world where the natural fear and hate of strangers have been replaced by consideration and care for them. In India in 300 BC there were special courts to protect them from being exploited.

The morality of the Gītā, as shown here and elsewhere, is not compulsive in the sense of against nature. The qualities and virtues are ‘innate’; they have to be cultivated, but this is ‘following the stream’, as it is said. Those who act and think in a contrary way are going against their own deeper nature. They suffer accordingly till they change the flow back to what it should be by nature.

Important is the example given by those who demonstrate freedom from selfish or trivial considerations. The conduct of those who are looked up to as spiritually great will be followed, to some extent at least, by others. It is a fact that simply to see someone free from personal motives is a stimulus to try for freedom; it activates the innate tendency towards freedom in those who are beginning to awaken.

Most of the rest of the chapter describes those of demoniac nature, to whom anger and cruelty seem like justifiable indignation. To dominate is to them a natural goal: the world is for the strong or cunning. It has no creator, or integrating principle: it is simply here, and to think about it is meaningless. What matters is to fulfill one’s desires, especially for ‘greatness’. The Gītā shows how they are endlessly led on by fantasies of glory. A modern yogin has remarked: ‘This attitude is never satisfied with mere success: it wants a Roman triumph. And it spends more energy, and takes greater risks, to get that triumph than just to succeed.’

In fact such men and women, dominating others, are themselves dominated by endless anxieties and fears. They come to live, says the Gītā, in a foul hell. The text says that they hate the Lord in themselves and in others. There is a half-unconscious fear of the divine element. As a result they never come to know the Lord. This ‘never’ is simply a strong assertion of difficulty: the Gītā itself has said in VI.36 that even the worst of such sinners can cross beyond the sea of evils by Knowledge, and in IX.31 that even a very evil-doer can be quickly saved by the grace of the Lord.

The gua-s alternate, though one is habitually predominant in an individual. Even in the most sinful and deluded, sunk in rajas and tamas, there are moments, usually very short, of pure sattva, when the vision becomes clear. (It is the mirror image of the case where a saint is suddenly assailed by an impulse of passion.) If in that brief moment of sattva he can look unflinchingly towards the Self, or can turn resolutely to the Lord with his whole being, then the radical transformation takes place. ‘But,’ as an experienced yogin remarked, ‘usually people are so identified with their own past and present that they feel such a complete change would kill them.’

The chapter ends with the instruction to follow traditional authority as to what to do and what not to do. The holy texts of revelation give general guides to conduct. Such authority can be compared to the rules of grammar. They have to be followed in the main, in order to communicate the meaning. An expert writer can break the rules to get a particular effect, but he does not break them much. A beginner who tries to imitate this freedom simply becomes incomprehensible. In the same way, to argue with a passion-dominated mind against tradition, because it is felt to be restrictive, is self-defeating. The traditions correspond to depths in man which may be quite unsuspected. Practice of the tradition will bring out flowers, and powers, from those depths. But when divine inspiration comes through a purified and clear mind, rules are no longer necessary.

© Trevor Leggett


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