An element in karma-yoga is independence of the pairs of opposites25 min read

The third element in karma-yoga is independence of the pairs of opposites, heat and cold, pleasure and pain, and so on. The Gita verse (2.14) says that sense-contacts cause heat and cold, pleasure and pain; they come and go, being impermanent. They are to be endured bravely. And the next verse says, ‘The wise man whom these do not afflict, to whom pleasure and pain are the same, he can attain immortality.’

The first pair, heat and cold, typify sense experience; the second pair are to exemplify inner reactions. Shankara’s view is that in the first pair, the senses report heat or cold, and the mind (buddhi) modifies itself accordingly; Self is aware of the mental modification, and in the ignorant man there is a false identification with the modification – I am hot, I am cold’.

In the second case, there is a mental modification in the form of, say, pain, arising as a reaction to some stimulus inner or outer; a second mental modification witnesses this one, and the Self, witnessing that, is identified through Ignorance with it – ‘I am suffering’.

The method of practising brave endurance of the first kind of opposite is called tapas (literally ‘heat’); the method of practising brave endurance of the second kind of opposite is called vairagya (literally ‘dispassion’).

As to the first pair of opposites, heat and cold, Madhusudana’s commentary on the Gita contains a semi-humorous protest, which is yet an accurate analysis of the real feelings: ‘How can I be asked to do this? Don’t we put on thick clothes when we are cold, and take them off again in the heat? Don’t we protect ourselves against hunger and against thorns and so on? We all do these things. If we don’t, we shall die. What is all this about independence of the pairs of opposites?’

The answer is: Yes, everyone does these things, and the yogi too eats and sleeps and wears clothes. But when the man of Ignorance cooks food and puts on clothes, he believes that these things protect him, and that nothing else will; therefore he piles them up. But in spite of all his precautions, he gets ill and catches cold, and in the end dies. The yogi when he lives relies on the Lord, the inner ruler of everything, and he uses only the minimum of things to support his life. As a result, he is much more vigorous, and he is not a prey to anxiety; if the things cease to be available, he does not feel he has lost his only support. He still relies on the Lord, and if it is time to die, he is conscious of immortality.

There is a saying of much wisdom: ‘One bowl of rice and a vegetable is necessary each day; two is better; three is luxury; four makes him ill; five kills him.’ Our Western civilization is already at the stage of four, and it is time to give up piling up unnecessary things in our lives as a kind of superstitious charm. It is not just a question of food.

How is he to practise? The first thing is to reduce life needs to sensible levels, and to practise independence even of these. To practise independence means occasionally to fast, or remain awake one night in meditation and devotion; above all it means to be able to accept it without grumbling when the meal expected is not forthcoming, or a night’s sleep has to be foregone. Our pre-conceptions about the needs of life need to be examined. These days we are free from the obsession with food, because it is recognized that over-eating rich foods leads to illness; the habit of rich Roman epicures of eating a banquet, vomiting it up again in a separate room, and then returning to eat another banquet seems to us disgusting. But we have our own obsessions, for instance a belief that culture can only be advanced by human beings completely sexually satisfied all the time.

This arises from a sort of ‘Freudian’ mis-reading of what Freud actually wrote. In his Beyond the Pleasure Principle, for example, he says, ‘The restless striving towards further perfection which may be observed in a minority of human beings is easily explicable as the result of that repression of instinct upon which what is most valuable in human culture is built.’ The Yoga-sutra declares, ‘From establishment in sexual restraint, attainment of energy’, and Freud says almost the same thing – ‘from the tension . . . resulting from repression of instinct… is born the driving momentum which allows of no abiding in any situation presented to it, but in the poet’s words “urges ever forward, ever unsubdued” (Goethe’s Faust, Act 1)’.

The second practice is to acquire a meditation posture, and gradually become relaxed and easy in it. By habituating the body and senses to control, mind can become more and more free from their domination. ‘By relaxation of effort, and entering samadhi on infinity, the posture is perfected, and then the opposites no longer affect him’ – these are two sutras of Patanjali, and Shankara comments, ‘When the posture has become firm, this follows as a result, that he is not overcome by pairs of opposites like heat and cold.’

The yogi sitting in the meditation posture feels and meditates that all is space. This is now easier for anyone who has a smattering of science, which informs us that the amount of anything that can be called matter in an atom corresponds to three bees in the dome of St Paul’s. Such statements do nothing to get rid of the experience of being a body, but they do help meet the objection, ‘after all science vouches for the existence of solid matter, so how can one meditate on the body and the universe as space?’ The yogi has to meditate on space till the meditation begins to go into samadhi, and he feels ‘I am space’. When this happens he is hardly aware of the body or what happens to it – in some meditation experiences the body is still perceived, but as transparent.

Sometimes a yogi should practice endurance of cold and heat – not so much deliberately seeking them out, but meeting them with calm and without trying to run away when they arise in ordinary life. Every yogi, says Shankara, must perform some physical tapas, which reduces the doshas or impurities in him, and helps to bring samadhi. The true and direct adversary of Ignorance, he says, is direct vision (samyag-darshana) but tapas helps to remove the obstacles to right vision. ‘It is fasting and so on, and endurance of heat and cold and other opposites.’ The objector says, ‘What has this physical tapas got to do with meditation, which is a mental thing?’ The reply is:

Of a man without tapas, the yoga is not perfected. The yoga is not perfected of one whose mind is taken up with attending to his body and possessions, whose body senses and mind are lazy, who is always running away, who is always conscious of himself as a body, who thinks of himself as very delicate. This is the use of tapas. . . .

Without tapas there is no destruction of the mass of latent impressions which have accumulated from time without beginning, and of a mind which still has this impurity, where is the samadhi?

The yogi must therefore give earnest attention to performing some tapas, but not (fanatical self-torture which would) disturb the calm of the mind. Since the purpose of the tapas is calm of the mind, if it disturbs the mind, its very purpose would be contradicted.

The yogi is not to torture himself physically, but he does perform exercises in tapas which invigorate him and produce mental calm. As an example: a lazy man who suddenly set himself to run ten miles would collapse. His tapas should be to run a little till he is tired, every day; the next week a little more, and finally after two or three years he can perform the tapas of running ten miles. To be able to keep up such a programme is a great tapas, not only of the body but the mind. Some days it will be raining, or he will feel he has a headache, and to persist with his run will give him a good degree of independence of the opposites.

At the end he may find that it is not a tapas any more, but a source of new life. The traditional forms of tapas all conduce in the end to vigour, they are never destructive of the instrument, but they establish mastery over it.

Different is independence from the inner reactions like pleasure and pain,the means to it is called vairagya. The word means literally absence of raga, which has the sense of colour, especially red as Shankara remarks, and hence passion, vehemence, hankering, anger and so on. A desire to win in an argument is not necessarily raga, but if it becomes vehement so that there is exultation when winning, and fury when losing, then it is. The root in Sanskrit has the sense of dyeing – cloth of a neutral colour is dyed a violent red; in the same way actions and feelings can become ‘charged’ with passion. Raga is sometimes contrasted with dvesha or aversion, but as a rule raga stands for both hankering and aversion, both of them being passionate and based on an intense interest in the object.

Vairagya is detachment from the objects of the world, and further from the gunas or qualities which are the basis of particular objects. We are related to objects and to gunas by false desire and false aversion, both based on a wrong conception of the Self and of the object or guna. All desires, except the desire for God, are false.

The main means to vairagya are:

philosophical analysis,

learning through experience of disappointment,

creating a master sentiment which pulls the currents of life into a harmonious flow, expanding selfish desires into universal art,

science and benevolence,

samadhi meditation,

vision of Self,

and grace of God.

We will look at them in turn.

Philosophical analysis tells us that our desires do not necessarily correspond to our true needs. A man suffering from one form of diabetes has an intense thirst, but a drink relieves it for only a moment. The need is for insulin, which his body is no longer manufacturing in sufficient quantities. He does not consciously desire insulin, in fact he may never have heard of it, the need is expressed, falsely, as a desire to drink and drink.

The practice consists in removing the idea that any desire represents an absolute value. A man in the cold naturally desires to be warmer, but if he is on an important errand to help someone in need, he simply brushes the desire aside. A mountaineer takes pleasure in challenging the onrush of desires for comfort and safety and warmth. Even life itself does not have absolute value. Some yogas stress the point that no man can be really free until he can willingly give up his life for a noble cause. Life only has meaning as a means to realization of God; merely to live, even centuries as a turtle was supposed to do, has no meaning.

Among the classical defects in the objects which have to be repeatedly considered are, their passing nature, the labour which is involved in getting and keeping them, and the hatred by people who are in an inferior position. This sort of analysis drives towards seeing that the apparent objects are based on a ‘false notion’ (mithya-jnana), a phrase which Shankara often uses. The Chapter of the Self commentary explains that unless it is realized that the doshas rest on a false notion, and unless the yoga practice is based upon right vision, it cannot be guaranteed that the yogas will overcome the doshas.

Pleasure attained from an object soon loses its keenness, it used to be said humorously by sailors that when a man has been rescued from a raft, it is only a week before he is complaining about the coffee served on the ship which has rescued him. As to getting and guarding, it is significant how in many fairy stories a man obtains a treasure but cannot enjoy it, he becomes merely a mindless guardian of it. The treasure has obtained the man; he dies defending it. In the Islamic tradition it is said: They asked the Prophet what he had to say about the things of the world. He replied: ‘What can I say about them? Things acquired with much effort, guarded with constant anxiety, and left finally with regret.’

This kind of analysis does not mean that a yogi must not strive for success in the tasks which engage him. He does strive, and with great energy. Because he is balanced in mind and heart, he is often more successful than others, a fact which may or may not be resented. But in any case he does not believe that success will give him lasting pleasure. He does the actions simply because they ought to be done, he makes a special point of sharing the fruits of any success with others, and he is not upset when they go. Nor is he upset if the whole undertaking ends in failure.

The commentator Vyasa gives sex, self-preservation, and power as examples of objects causing binding attachment, and Shankara remarks that though there is an infinity of objects causing desire, yet the principal impulse of raga is above all grasping after these three. In these cases raga is at its most powerful, and it is to be opposed with the greatest determination.

The nature of the satisfaction and fulfilment momentarily felt on attaining a much-longed-for object has been minutely analysed by Indian philosophers. The conclusion is that concentration on one object leads to temporary suppression of all other desires, and a narrowing-down till the object represents the whole world. When it is attained, for a moment it is felt that the whole world has been attained – the man momentarily feels himself a god. The mind is calm in the feeling ‘all that was to be attained has been attained’. But very soon the suppressed desires and anxieties begin to sprout up, as the concentration becomes dispersed. Then it is found that the whole world has not been attained; the absolute value which concentration had superimposed on the chosen object is found to be only relative value after all. There is often a great sense of disillusionment.

(From the yogic point of view, dispelling of illusion is a, great advantage; it can release the energy which has been locked up in preserving the illusion by concentration. But the man of the world hates disillusionment; illusion is his life, and his death also.)

In Shankara’s commentary on Patanjali, the point is repeatedly made that these same consideration apply even to the heavens enjoyed by the gods and by those who worship them. The gods enjoying great powers are still subject periodically to envy and to fear. They are not liberated, and their state of glory is only temporary. When their favourable karma is exhausted, they are thrown down to the state of mortals again, and their places are taken by others who have earned a similar temporary elevation.

Some people can learn vairagya through experience of disappointment. This is a path of agony, and no one should deliberately take it. And there are those who never learn even from bitter disappointment, but persuade themselves that all will be different next time. People of sincere feeling can come to yoga through distress, and what the world calls disaster is an opening, if it can be taken. At such times the conviction that nothing in the world is worthwhile produces a release of power. It generally dissipates itself in futile regrets and remorse, or sometimes in anger, but if the energy can be re-directed into yogic practice, it leads to progress in a short time. It should be expected, however, that when after a little yogic practice the keen edge of grief disappears, there is a danger of forgetting, and again taking up the pursuit of false aims. This can happen again and again.

A partial vairagya can be attained by cultivating a master sentiment (a phrase of William James which Dr Shastri often used). A keen musician, for instance, who must practise several hours a day, is immune from the habit of watching television for long periods. He feels restless if he has to do so, and the programmes seem to him waste of time. If the master sentiment is study of yoga philosophy, or the practice of singing devotional songs, it can be an important step on the path, and frees the yogi from many inner and outer adhesions. But the detachment so produced is still only partial – there may be pride of learning, or self-complacency in devotion. In such cases the vairagya is what Shankara calls the second stage, where some binding desires have been transcended but not others.

However, except in cases where a yogi from a temporary timidity deliberately holds back and takes refuge in his existing state, the concentration does bring a new insight, which will modify the master sentiment. Ultimately the quest for truth takes possession. When this happens, irrelevant attitudes and irrational compulsions begin to lose their force. To organize the master sentiment, Dr Shastri recommended that at the beginning at least one hour a day must be given to yogic practice and study, and some yogic unselfish benevolence must be performed to release the cramp of individuality. After some time, at least three hours a day must be given to yoga. Those who do this are able to live without the internal whirlpools which overwhelm action and judgment, there may be eddies, but in general their actions are well balanced and effective.

Expansion of selfish desires into universal sympathy, and creativity in art and science and benevolence, is an allied process. Desire cannot be suppressed by a mere order of the will; it may seem to disappear but it comes up in another form, often obvious to a third party but hidden from oneself. To transform desire there must be active pursuit of a great ideal, without a sense of possessiveness. There are those who make sacrifices for a cause, but require that their sacrifices be known and appreciated. This is not transformation of selfish desire but a re-direction of it, and often no improvement. The true virtue is what the Chinese yogis call ‘hidden virtue’, which no one knows about, in the end the man himself is to become unaware of his own virtue, and this is the true virtue which has the power to transform the environment.

In the Middle Ages in Japan, there was a movement for reciting the name of the Buddha of Light in groups. One of the leaders of this movement was Honen, who chanted the name of Buddha in all the towns and villages. In one small town, when the party came and chanted in the streets, among the bystanders was a local thief and one of his henchmen. The junior was impressed and said so to his chief. ‘I don’t like it,’ replied the other, ‘after all it’s just a circus. They say their purpose is to adore the Buddha, but it isn’t is it? Their purpose is to let us see them adoring the Buddha, and that isn’t an adoration at all. After all, if I fell in love with a woman I might tell her how much I cared for her, but it would be whispered into her ear. If I shouted her name in public and said all those things in the street, it wouldn’t be affection at all, would it?’

As it happened, Honen put up at the same cheap inn where the thief happened to be staying. The latter got up in the middle of the night and crept round the verandah to peep into Honen’s room. He saw him sitting in front of a tiny light, and repeating the name of the Buddha of Light in a whisper. The thief watched for some time but Honen continued doing the same thing. Then the thief sneezed, and Honen immediately blew out the light and lay down.

The thief crept back to his own room. Next day he spoke to Honen and told him all that had happened. Honen said, ‘You are right that our recitation in public is not the real adoration of Buddha. We do it so that people may be attracted to do it themselves, that is a holy purpose, but it is not real adoration. Real adoration is done when no one knows about it. When you sneezed, I knew someone was watching me, and from that moment my adoration would have had no spiritual value. So I stopped, and waited till I should be alone again.’

The thief became one of Honen’s followers.

Samadhi practice is to touch directly the latent desires which dwell in the causal layer, the seed-bed so to say of thoughts and feelings which are available to our inspection. We do not know what desires may be dormant there. A commentator gives the example of Maitra who is in love with one woman, other women however beautiful seem uninteresting to him. This does not mean his desire for them is extinct , it is merely dormant, temporarily over-ruled, so that he does not feel it. In the same way a rich man may fancy himself honest – in fact he may be honest, having no need to be otherwise. But when circumstances change, he may find out whether his honesty was from conviction, or whether it was simply a habit like any other habit, liable to be modified under stress.

As will be explained, samadhi is the third step in meditation. The first is called dharana, holding the attention on to one place. The second is dhyana, when the attention rests there continuously, and does not have to be recalled with more or less frequency, as it does in dharana. But the meditator is still aware, I am meditating on this’. In samadhi, the I am meditating’ vanishes, and the object, This’, becomes radiant and blazes up in its own light; it is the whole universe.

The practice will be explained a little further on, under the fourth item of karma-yoga.

Vairagya comes from vision of the Self. Even a glimpse of the Self frees from many long-standing obsessions. They are not exactly conquered triumphantly; they simply lose their importance because they become illusory. It is by vision of the Self that attachment even for the gunas is conquered. The ordinary man feels raga as attachment for specific objects, and the philosophical analysis and other practices are in the beginning directed mostly against this attachment for particular objects.

But there is a much more subtle attachment, which is for the gunas themselves; it is different from attachment for objects. Take the guna rajas – passion-struggle. Normally this is felt as the fight for success in a particular thing; that thing is the object of attachment and joy is hoped for when it is attained. But a man whose attachment is for rajas itself does not mind much what thing it is that he fights for. His joy is in the struggle, and when he is successful he is rather indifferent to the object. It was merely a field for his rajas. Such men are mountaineers in everything. It is not that there is anything at the top of the mountain; they simply wish to ‘conquer’ it, as they put it. In the world they are often magnanimous to those whom they have defeated; it is victory itself that they want, not any particular success. Other people, travelling in the wake of such conquerors, may reap benefits, but the heroes themselves frequently waste their lives.

In the same way a man can be attached to the lethargy of tamas, which gives him a cheerful indifference to everything; or to the serenity and clarity of the individual self in sattva, which he does not wish to break up in favour of expansion into the unknown depths of the real Self.

The last way, which however cannot be employed in those yogas like the Jaina which rely on self-power alone, is grace of God. Shankara lays stress on this, especially in his Gita commentary. The grace is attracted by the efforts of the disciple, if those efforts are directed towards transcending his individuality. At the beginning a yogi tends to set up some ideal of his own: that he may be virtuous, may be loyal, may be eloquent in spreading the truth, may be compassionate, and so on. This picture has been selected from the basis of his individuality as he feels it to be – it is often a compensation for a feeling of inadequacy. As he makes progress, he begins to abandon these ambitions of spiritual childhood. He prays not that his inner being may find expression in one of these things selected by itself, but that it may be transformed into what the divine seeks to express through him. That may be something which he cannot conceive at present. Or if he could conceive it, it may seem to him something inferior.

When a savage prays to his god, he will ask for strength to conquer his enemies and protect his family and tribe, for skill in agriculture or hunting so that his people may be fed, and so on. The notion of forgiveness of enemies, or hospitality to strangers from another tribe, will not occur to him if it is not in his tradition. And if they are suggested to his mind, he will tend to despise them as based on weakness. Yet this is the true ideal in every man, as Christ and Buddha taught.

By repetition of the name of God and meditation on its meaning, and by prayer, the cramp of desire can be loosened. Such prayers are often apparently not answered for a time, because the disciple unconsciously may not in fact be too willing that the change should take place. But if he continues to struggle, there comes a bursting out, which he knows by the falling away of bonds which have held him prisoner for many years. He may, however, hardly be aware of the operation of divine grace till it is over.

A young monk by chance encountered the daughter of a wealthy merchant when her father brought her to visit his temple. They were overwhelmed with love for each other, as they believed it to be. The thought came to him to give up his profession, and try to enter the business and marry her. He knew her father would take her next morning to their own part of the country.

In the night he got up and prayed in the sanctuary to be freed from the temptation, but it became stronger and stronger. He repeated the holy name but it had no effect on his mind. Finally in the middle of his tears he fell asleep.

When he saw the morning spring sun shining in through the door he knew what he had to do. Without any preparations he went and quietly joined the merchant’s party, lending a hand with the baggage. He became an apprentice in the business, and showed extraordinary ability. The father took to him, and made him his chief assistant, soon he asked permission to marry the daughter and the father agreed. They wed and had a child, the father died and he managed the business with outstanding success. Then an illness carried off both his wife and child, and he was prostrated with sorrow. He began to interest himself in charitable activities, first as a means of distracting himself from his grief, and later for their own sake. Then a series of accidents ruined the business and he was penniless. He became a pilgrim, and wandered round the country, trying to teach organization and mutual help to the poor. He also tried to tell them that satisfaction of worldly desires alone would not lead to lasting happiness, but he had not the spiritual training and force which could carry conviction.

One evening he found himself near his former temple, and stole quietly in. Now an old and broken man, he prostrated himself and prayed for forgiveness. He asked only that the remainder of his life might be devoted to the good of all in any way the Lord might direct.

Again he fell asleep. Again he saw the morning sun shining in through the doorway. He found himself a young man once more, and realized it had all been a dream. But the desire had fallen away from him, and with the enormous access of energy released, he threw himself into his yogic practices and holy study. He became a spiritual light who influenced life in all that part of the country. Through grace, he experienced in a single night what would otherwise have occupied a whole life. In the same way, through grace, one tiny incident can give volumes of experience, what to another person would be almost nothing can be the turning-point of a life.

Of all the ways, the path of devotion to the Lord is the easiest, so says the Gita.

To students of real sincerity, the stones and the fires and the animals reveal transcendental truth, as it is related in the Chandogya Upanishad. The Lord can speak through anything. In one way or another he lights the flame of Self-realization in a devotee, and then the desires of the world thin out.

Shankara concludes his exposition of the subject with the words, ‘The highest vairagya is no other than pure knowledge of the Self as it really is.’