Overseer and approver,
supporter, experiencer, Great Lord,
Highest self – so is he called,
That dweller in the city of this body.
Bhagavad Gita, XIII.22
This verse contains two riddles, one individual and one cosmic. The individual riddle is posed by the final words: ‘dweller in the city of this body’; the cosmic riddle is in the words ‘Great Lord’, which as Shankara says refer to the universe. Surprisingly perhaps, the tradition of yoga is to take the cosmic one first, and then the individual.
The cosmic riddle is that the created universe has been taught as a projection from a divine intelligence, who has also entered into it and controls it from within as well as from without. His existence is said to be traceable in the workings of nature and in the human heart.
The individual riddle is that this omnipotent creator-Lord is somehow locked up in individual consciousness. Both these propositions seem at first sight to be highly unlikely, if not inconceivable except as poetic fantasy.
He is the ‘overseer’, says the verse. The sense is, that he does not himself act directly, but he acts through the workers, He is the ‘approver’, which means that unless the work is properly done, it will have to be done again and again till he does pass it. Shankara explains that in some of the complicated ceremonies in ancient India, there was in attendance an expert who did not take part in the ceremony himself, but supervised it; a mistaken procedure had to be done again till he approved it.
The parallel is with the workings of nature. obsessed by the so-called mechanical model of the physical universe, many of us believe that objects change and move according to fixed laws of nature. The deterministic mechanical model has been given up by physics, which now says that the fundamental level is indeterminate. It cannot explain how the indeterminacy of the basic level can lead to the seemingly deterministic behaviour which we believe we see in the world as it is. There must be some control somewhere, to turn the vague into the orderly, but no one has any idea what it is.
Shankara’s logical view is, that when we see order, we know there is intelligence producing it. Gardens, and account-books, become disorderly unless constantly adjusted.
We may think that repetition is a sign of a law of nature, an effect not dependent on consciousness. We can predict just what will happen when we drop a stone: gravity takes over, and there is no need to invoke a consciousness. Shankara however in his commentaries on the Upanishads says that things fall because the divinity of the earth pulls them. He pulls human beings, for instance, just so much that they can stand up; if he pulled a little more, they would fall flat on their faces, and if he pulled a little less, they would float away into space.
But, it may be argued, the pull of gravity is always the same and predictable, so we do not need a divinity to explain it. This is based on a false assumption, that predictability implies unconscious functioning, because conscious functioning would be uncertain. A modern illustration of Shankara’s position is provided by an orchestral concert. The players have their respective orchestral parts on a stand before each one. They play the notes written there, and if we know the piece or have the full score, we can predict in each case what will be the next note. A listener in the next room might say that there is no need for the players: the note on the score is, by a law of nature, reproduced on the instrument. A robot could do it, and there is no need for an intelligence. Each note causes the next one, by a fixed causal law, and so it is that we predict them.
But we know that the argument is false. One note does not cause the succeeding note, though the sequence can be predicted. Each note is a free action of the player, prompted but not controlled by the score. It is roughly predictable, but not in the finer points, and it is just those finer points (which to the tone-deaf may seem negligible) that make an inspired performance. Musical people will come together in thousands to hear such a performance; the fine details have great results.
Without a controller in the form of a conductor, the rendering will soon disintegrate. Who will set the tempo when the score says just: Allegro? When some instruments begin to play more slowly than the others, which will give way? When the score says Rallentando, some of them will slow up more gradually than others. Even very small discrepancies will pile up as each continues just to play from the score at his own tempo, and soon the concert collapses. (There have been spectacular cases, even at the highest level, where a hastily summoned deputy conductor, who did not know the score well, lost control of the orchestra, so that some sections ended a bar after the others had finished.)
We cannot in fact predict complex developments from assumed ‘laws of nature’. With just three bodies in space – say sun, moon, and earth – it is impossible to calculate exactly the mutual gravitational stresses between them. The trajectory of a space-craft between earth and moon is calculable only because the mass of the craft is so relatively tiny that it can be ignored. The three-body problem is reduced to a two-body problem, which can be solved. The orbits of earth and moon round the sun are known by observation, not by calculation. Perhaps Newton was obscurely aware of this, when he proposed that God needs occasionally to adjust the solar system.
The yogic view is that the movements in nature are consciously directed from within by the Lord. In this function he is called the antar-yamin, or inner controller. The control is exercised to produce regularity in what would otherwise be chaos. Shankara remarks half-humorously, that in our ordinary experience we know that to keep things in order in a home, or a business, or to be punctual, requires constant vigilance and precise knowledge.
As regards the inner riddle, man looks within himself. A human being has some freedom of choice, inasmuch as in human birth the inner Lord is beginning to stir. The choice is influenced by the effects of his past karma; his past actions which tend to perpetuate the illusion of helplessness. His choices cannot be determined absolutely, because the past karma is of different kinds, some purifying and some darkening. He can choose between them: the Gita confirms that even one of very evil conduct can soon become righteous if he turns to the Lord in complete devotion (Gita IX.30,31). The possibility is always there, though it might take the equivalent of a nuclear explosion to go against so many adverse tendencies. Man must train himself to go into meditation on some aspect of the Lord, and then feel that aspect within himself. There is an Overseer within himself, something which is calmly aware of his thoughts and actions. but does not act itself. It is the Approver, in that its reflection in the mind warns man against entirely self-centred actions. These invariably lead to suffering, and the same situation recurs in which man has another chance to make the God-centred actions. When he does so, they are approved by that witnessing consciousness.
The further lines of the verse tell something of this supreme self within man. It is the support, that is to say it holds his individuality together by its mere regard. It is the experiencer, in that its presence gives life to the mind, which otherwise would be inert, latent as if in deep sleep, knowing nothing outside or inside. The overseeing self witnesses, but does not undergo, the mental changed; it experiences them figuratively, but not actually.
It is the supreme self in man which gives him the power to be aware, and to choose. The material of the body, and the refined material of the mind, follow the course of the regularities imposed, as laws of nature, by the Lord as the inner controller in each particle of them. Some of these laws are known to us through observation and experiment with nature, and others are largely unknown, such as the law of karma, and the laws governing the expansion of consciousness.
The two riddles – cosmic and individual – have to be solved by the yogi in living experience, not by inferences and guesses. Normally the cosmic riddle is tackled first, because he finds that the other one, the riddle of the Great Lord in his own body, is too unbelievable. His mind simply cannot settle down to it. The first riddle, the Lord as controller of the universe, is not so incredible. After all, it does not go against our direct experience. We do not see atoms, and yet we have good reasons for thinking they are there. We can reason about a Lord, and the mind can set itself to go deeper and deeper into the idea. But in the case of the individual self, it seems that there can be nothing unknown. This is the one thing which we do know, and when we look, we do not see any Great Lord there. So this is one reason why traditionally the training begins with worship of a Lord felt to be external.
What then is the process? It begins with a vague reverence for truth, and a determination to search for it. By leading a life of reverence for the Lord, at first merely inferred in nature by reasoning, the yogi becomes able to focus his mind and think. He must be prepared to do nothing but think for an hour or so. Most people hardly ever think: they read or remember odd scraps of information, or more often emotional tangles. So they do not come to conclusions on which they can act. When one learns to think to a conclusion, the mind becomes clear of trivialities. It becomes able to meditate. It begins to see the patterns in life, instead of attributing everything to mere chance or the action of blind forces. To be aware of the patterns which are struggling to unfold themselves in life is to begin to co-operate with them, to be part of the cosmic purpose to which the divinity in nature is leading us.
Then the acts of body and mind are efficient, no longer contaminated by personal imaginations, but become inspired with the cosmic purpose. He is like a finger of the Lord.
What does it mean in practice? A simple action like moving some things from here to there is usually accompanied by a mass of thoughts: It’s going to take hours to finish this. Why do they have to be moved anyway? I’m not getting much for this (in money or appreciation). They might have got me a trolley. And so on and so on.
Even when it is service to a good end, it easily becomes what Dr. Shastri used to call ‘noisy service’ or ‘crying service’. When mind is clear calm and steady, actions go forward without all this ‘sludge’, as it has been described. Those trivialities produced little tensions which impeded the flow of life-energy. Now the movement itself is a pleasure, like the pleasure of a child waving a coloured rag. The perception of the bricks changes; they become brighter, and there is a beauty in creating order as they are laid down. The actions do not become tiresome or tiring. Similarly the thoughts become fewer, but those few are to the point, balanced and calm. They become creative, not merely in their effect but in creating calm in others who are open to receive it.
When the meditation moves on to the individual, the Great Lord begins to reveal himself as overseer in the mind itself. The yogi begins to be conscious of something immortal in the midst of the changing thoughts. Everything in the world is dying, and our bodies and minds are dying, but the yogic meditation gives a glimpse of something which does not change, in the midst of that change; there is something which does not die, in the midst of all that dying.
When the yogi has had even a momentary experience of it, he is no longer dependent on faith and inference and guessing about immortality. He has now known it in himself, and his attitude towards life-and-death changes for ever.
He it is who truly sees,
who sees the same supreme Lord standing,
Equally in all the beings,
The undying One within the dying.
© Trevor Leggett