Overlooking or disregarding sin9 min read

Shankara explains ‘overlooking or disregarding sin’ as having as little to do with sinful people as possible during the training period. This is a negative practice, and it may be asked why it is mentioned as a ‘refinement’ of the mind. He says:

If it were not mentioned, the mind would go to association even with people who are habitually unrighteous. From the taint which arises from having dealings with them, the mind would become unfit for the practice of Friendliness and the others. Let not sin arise in oneself from engaging in undertakings which depend on habitual wrong-doing.

This is why indifference is mentioned in this context.

Disregard of sin does not mean standing aside from the suffering of a victim. But it does mean to be free from the mixture of self-righteousness and animal fear and rage which calls itself ‘indignation’. And yet, how can anyone think of, not to say witness, the cruelties of a Nero or a Stalin without indignation? In the yogic analysis, these things are on the level of a cat torturing a mouse; the human being saves the mouse from the cat if he can, but does not hate the cat because he knows this is its nature.

Tyrants great or small often function on the cat level. Small boys are sometimes cruel from the adult standpoint; they pull the wings off flies and laugh at their struggles. They have not the imagination to feel into the suffering they create. The parent knows that it has to stop, but he does not hate the child.

Indignation is caused by fear, a threat to security. Until a yogi has had a glimpse of immortality, he will be subject to fear and consequently to this kind of indignation. He has to treat it as a tapas, and try to pass through it without losing his interior balance for too long. He can reckon his progress by finding how quickly he recovers. With some people a shock can frighten and depress for weeks, sometimes for a lifetime. Those who practise yoga find that after only a few days, something rises within them that can throw off the depression.

If they continue with Yogic practice, and especially Om practice, they find that as soon as the immediate pressure is over, an inner strength rises and revives their spirits. Finally even during the time of stress, an inner support is felt.

Indignation is an impulse of rajas, generally rising as a reaction to fear, which is of tamas. Rajas is better than tamas – it is better to feel indignation than to be paralysed by fear. But rajas must be transcended. An opponent must sometimes be vigorously resisted, but that resistance should be like battling against a force of nature, for instance a storm. We do not personify the storm, nor do we hate it even when fighting for life.

In his commentary on the Gita, Madhusudana discusses the Four Feelings or bhavanas as cultivated in the yoga of Patanjali, and explains that the practice will first weaken and then destroy the latent drives of Passion in the seed-bed which is at the root of the mind. Shankara in his commentary explains the word ‘bhavana’ as ‘causing something to be’. As already pointed out, it has also the sense of soaking, permeating. The concept is different from conventional morality, where frustrated instincts still boil under a veneer of control.

Bhavana can and must change the very roots of the mind, and this is possible because in the yogic psychology drives like power and sex are not the essential nature of the human being, but are based on ‘illusory notions’, as the Chapter of the Self commentary says.

Some Western psychology, like the early Chinese philosopher Kao-tsu, tends towards a pessimistic conclusion, because it is thought that truth and virtue are things acquired. Thinkers of this persuasion have argued that drives like hunger, power and sex are fundamental; they may be distorted, even sublimated apparently completely, but at a deep level they are always crying for satisfaction. In the yogic psychology, these things are not fundamental, but superimposed notions of difference on a fundamental divinity which is a unity in everything. ‘He who is constant in all beings, wise, immortal, firm. . . . The seer meditating, seeing everything in the Self, will not be deluded; and whoever sees the Self alone in everything, he is Brahman, glorious in the highest heaven.’ The Gita makes this vision the whole basis of true morality:

He sees who sees the supreme Lord abiding in all beings,
The undying in the dying;
Seeing the same Lord established in all,
He harms not the Self by the Self, and attains the highest.

This is the same basis of morality as in the quotation from Leviticus cited by the teacher of the Law to Christ, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thy Self: I the Lord.’ Christ extended the notion of neighbour to include all.

In the third part of the Patanjali yoga sutras, it states that when the bhavanas on friendliness and the others enter the state of samadhi, there come ‘powers’. One of the commentaries explains that one of the powers is that friendliness and compassion are aroused in others. These powers may come when the yogi’s meditation on, say, compassion has reached samadhi – that is to say the meditator disappears, and the meditation process disappears, and only compassion is there, becoming radiant.

It is not a human, feeling compassion and giving expression to it; it is Compassion, making use of that body and mind to express itself. At this time there is no individual choosing or calculating about individual welfare. It is only compassion incarnate, and actions are not centred round the individual at all – hence they can be much more free. Here are two examples.

The general had smashed the rebel army, and proposed to execute their leaders at a big public occasion the next morning. After that, he thought he would go to see the flowers at the Peony Temple. The monks there grew tree-peonies as a contribution to the beauty of the neighbourhood; when the flowers bloomed, many visitors came to see the hundreds of flowers. The general therefore sent a messenger to tell the head priest that he would visit the temple the next afternoon, after the executions.

The priest, who was a fully realized yogi of the Mantra Sect, said to the messenger, ‘Come round with me and look at the flowers.’ On the way he picked up a little sickle. As they passed each tree, the priest cut off the flowers. The messenger was aghast, but too bewildered to say anything. When they had gone right round the gardens, the priest faced the messenger and said, ‘Tell him I’ve murdered them.’

The messenger returned and told his tale. The general’s eyes grew red with anger, but then he became thoughtful. The rebel leaders were sent back to their own people.

A duke was displeased with one of his ministers who had disobeyed him. He sentenced the minister to die at the end of the month. One of the court counsellors, who practised a certain form of yoga, argued against the sentence. ‘He has made a mistake, but remember that he served you loyally for a long time before that.’ The duke heard him out, but met all his arguments by referring to the clear words of the law which laid down the death penalty for this offence.

When the counsellor persisted, the duke cut him short: ‘I am the highest judge in this dukedom. I have heard your reasons and met them, and told you my decision. If you still persist in presenting reasons, you are as good as saying that my decision is unjust. That would be treason.’ The counsellor was silent. Next morning he presented himself again, and asked for mercy for the minister. ‘And what are your reasons?’ asked the duke smoothly. ‘I have no reasons,’ replied the counsellor, ‘I just ask for mercy for him.’ The duke shouted, ‘Get out!’ Next day it was the same – ‘No special reasons.’ The duke irritably ordered him to be punished. Next day the counsellor appeared again – ‘No special reasons.’ The duke was impressed and pardoned the minister.

On reading such stories, there is bound to be a feeling that it is question of being able to say certain lines, like an actor, and if they are well said, then the other party also will say his lines and all will be well. The Archbishop of Canterbury under William the Conqueror was an Italian, Lanfranc, and he relates an interesting story of his youth. He had read how a saint in Lombardy had been invited to visit a rich man’s family, and the rich man had sent him a horse on which to make the journey. However, as he was passing through a forest, he was set on by an outlaw who knocked him off the horse and rode off with it. The whip was left lying on the ground, and the saint picked it up and ran after the outlaw, calling to him, ‘Take the whip too – you will need it when you come to the river!’

As it happened, when Lanfranc was travelling in France to Cluny, he himself was set on in the same way, and the robber stripped him of everything except his cloak and went off. Lanfranc remembered the story of the Lombard saint, and its happy ending, and went after the robber. When he caught him up he offered him the cloak too. Lanfranc remarks, ‘He thought I was mocking him, and he beat me until I was nearly killed. And that was right, for that saint in Lombardy had given that the robber might take, but I was giving in the hope that he might be converted and give me back everything he had taken!’

And furthermore, the powers arising from samadhi may not necessarily preserve the individual life of the yogi. That life is only one element in the universe; the manifestation of Compassion may not include preserving that particular life. In fact the counsellor of the duke, mentioned above, was executed by that duke’s successor for a very similar protest.