The Bhagavad Gita is a teaching for crisis

The Bhagavad Gītā is a teaching for crisis. In many ways it is quite different from the situations in the Upanisads, where a seeker after truth attends on a teacher. The Upanisadic procedure is however described in a group of Gītā verses beginning with IV.34, in the context of Knowledge:

Go to those who have knowledge and have realized it directly. Learn by bowing down, by questioning, and by being attentive; They will teach you Knowledge.

The word translated ‘being attentive’ is literally ‘service’, but Śaṅkara here and elsewhere explains it as basically ‘wanting to hear’. It is not simply slavish obedience for its own sake.

At the beginning of the Gītā, Arjuna is not yet a disciple in these terms. He is not seeking truth: he does ask, but not about bondage and spiritual freedom, only about what he should do in this particular crisis. He does not bow down to Kṛṣṇa; he simply respects him as a friend of good judgment. Though he does say once, ‘I am your disciple, tell me what to do’, he goes on without reverence, calling him by familiar nicknames such as Keṣava. It means someone with a shock of hair, which might correspond to the English ‘Curly’. He is later overwhelmed at the thought of how casual and irreverent he has been. He bows down then, but that is not till Chapter XI. Moreover, Arjuna has done no service to Kṛṣṇa, nor asked him questions about knowledge of truth. How is it then that the teaching of the Gītā – which proclaims itself to be Upaniṣadic – is given to him?

It is a case of what our teacher Dr Shastri called the ‘dharma of emergency’. In an emergency, preconditions may be set aside. He used to give the example of a doctor. In classical times the sick person’s household would send a formal invitation to the doctor (and a carriage if they could afford it). The doctor himself must dress carefully, arrange his things in good order, and proceed with dignified bearing to the place. But if it were an emergency, the doctor must drop everything else and run barefoot. So in Arjuna’s case, the requirements are waived, even the inner requirements of full faith in the spiritual teacher, and desire to know the highest truth. This can happen because the patient is so to speak in agony.

Kṛṣṇa in the Gītā does, it is true, say (IV.1–3), ‘I have taught you this Yoga’, but he makes it clear that it is not the human personality that is the teacher. For verse 1 has said: ‘I taught this at the beginning of Creation’, a declaration of the Cosmic Self as the teacher. As yet, Arjuna finds this impossible to believe.

The next point is that the Gītā here, as in other places, makes a distinction between merely knowing texts and ideas, and seeing the truth in oneself. In the Gītā, Knowledge (jñāna) normally means full realization of the supreme Self. But in a few places, the word for knowledge (jñāna) is paired with a word such as Realization (vijñāna) or Yoga (identity-meditation, when all senses are inoperative). In those places, Śaṅkara explains that knowledge (jñāna) means intellectual understanding in the form of ideas, as against direct experience beyond ideas. For instance, in VII, 1 and 2, the Lord says he will teach, to a yogin, jñāna and its vijñāna. Śaṅkara explains a yogin as one who practises bringing the mind to samādhi-meditation on the Lord; jñāna is knowledge as an idea, whereas vijñāna is being-that-oneself (sva-anubhava). In XVI. 1 the attributes of seekers after Brahman are listed, and among them is steadiness in Knowledge and yoga. Śaṅkara says that here Knowledge (jñāna) means grasping what the holy texts and the teacher say about the Self, whereas yoga means to realize it in one’s own self by withdrawal of the senses and one-pointed concentration. Steadiness he explains as nisthâ or firm establishment.

In IV.34 above, the Gītā is similarly distinguishing text-knowers from those who not only know but also directly see the truth (tattva- darśana). It is only these last, says Śaṅkara, who will be able to teach realization to others.

They teach, and the pupil is to learn. In IV.34, the first verse of the group, he is told to learn by bowing, by being attentive, and by asking questions. But the verse cannot be read in isolation. It is part of the group. As Śaṅkara points out, these three things are only external, and they may be done deceptively He uses a strong word, māyā-vi-tva, which means something like the trickiness of a magician.

Our teacher told us of an incident at a temple in the Himālayas, where a small image of the god Shiva had long been installed in the dim shrine and worshipped as a symbol of God. A European explorer happened to visit the temple, and he said that he felt a magical attraction to it. In fact he gave up his travels, and remained at the shrine as a worshipper of Shiva. He did some service to the shrine, and became well known and respected for his one-pointed devotion. ‘He has fallen in love with our Shiva,’ remarked the priest. After some months he told them that he now had to return, but begged to be allowed to take the image of Shiva with him. He made a generous donation to the temple to replace it with any other they chose. The priest, impressed by his devotion, agreed, knowing he could easily get another one. Much later they heard that the Shiva image had been carved from a rare jade. Perhaps one of the early kings had commissioned it from China, and then on his deathbed left it to the temple. The explorer knew about jades, and even in the dim light had recognized what it was. Having secured possession of it by his show of devotion, he sold it for a fortune. It had been indeed a magician’s trick of illusion.

The three external means – obeisance, questioning and service – can thus be imitated. There is an Eastern saying: ‘Beware of slaves.’ This is not in the sense of the Roman maxim: ‘As many slaves you have, you have that number of enemies.’ The Eastern saying is more profound. The slave does everything for his master, even things which the master can do easily himself. Gradually it is the slave who knows where things are, and what to do when something unexpected turns up. The master finds the slave more and more useful. Finally the slave is not merely useful, but essential. He has taken over the running of everything. The master, though accorded every respect and flattery, is in fact overshadowed by the slave, ‘as the god is overshadowed by the priest who outwardly worships him’. The slave has in fact become the master. Some of the Roman emperors were manipulated in this way by their freed men, who had been their slaves.

The climb from slave to master is not necessarily conscious. At first, it may be a naïve self-deception. For a century the royal house of Nepal were kept confined to the palace grounds, surrounded with enervating luxury. The hereditary chief ministers ran the country, keeping the royal family absolutely free from cares, as they put it. There have been similar cases in Chinese history, where the phrase for it is ‘prisoners of Heaven’. The rule by the devoted ‘slaves’ is autocratic and tyrannical: they claim to be slaves themselves, so no one else can be allowed to be anything more than a slave – to them.

Dr Shastri quotes his own teacher as saying: ‘serve without being slavish’. Śaṅkara on Gītā II.48 makes the acute comment that the devotee should feel that he is doing the action as an agent of the Lord, but without any idea ‘may the Lord be pleased with it’. If this last thought accompanies the action, the mind will be disturbed. Should some outside event make the action fail, the agent will tend to think: ‘Well this was done purely as an offering to the Lord. Surely he might have protected it. Is the Lord being ungrateful?’ The diaries even of future saints record such thoughts. Śaṅkara says that it is essential to rise above them by practising the yoga of even-mindedness.

These three – reverence, questioning and service – are normally the external means, though in an emergency they can be largely dispensed with. What are the inner and direct means to attain Knowledge, and from Knowledge, freedom? They are briefly given at Chapter IV. 38 and 39:

There is no purifier in the world like knowledge; the one who is perfected in Yoga, will in time himself find it in himself.…

The man of faith gets knowledge, intent on it, restraining the senses; having attained knowledge, in no long time he goes to peace.

As often in the Gītā, the instruction (in verse 38) seems to go in a circle. It begins by praising Knowledge as the supreme purifier, then goes on to say that, to get Knowledge, you have to be perfected in yoga. But perfection in yoga itself depends on purification, as the Gītā points out again and again. In this and other cases, the idea is that the process will be gradual at first, because the taints to be removed show themselves as real. Through the methods of yoga, the major taints of attachment, anger, inertia and so on are removed piecemeal, for instance by meditating on the opposite of each in turn. The rise of Knowledge however shows them up as illusions, and so can sweep away any remainder in one stroke. Śaṅkara elsewhere compares it to laundering. They first remove the major patches of grime from the cloths separately, but finally immerse the cloths wholesale in the cleansing vat.

The process of yoga in verse 38 is explained by Śaṅkara as karma- yoga and samādhi-yoga. He is repeating his analysis of karma-yoga under II.39. Samâdhi-yoga is the most refined part of karma-yoga; he says that the perfection consists of purification, and becoming able to desire release.

Such a true seeker will ‘in time’ – after long practice of the yoga, says Śaṅkara – ‘himself find it in himself’. This sentence, as many others, shows that though the teacher teaches about the Self, it has to be found by the pupil himself, in himself. He cannot get it from another. It is the Lord who wakens in his own self, as the Self, annihilating all distinctions of individual self and others. For this reason the Gītā does not recommend a pupil to practise helplessness in the form ‘What can I do, worthless as I am?’ Though it may be provisionally true of the individual body-mind-ego complex, man himself is not that complex. Conviction of helplessness, as the Muṇḍaka Upaniṣad says, is turning away from the splendour of the Lord within. ‘It cannot be attained by the one without strength.’

The truth-seeing teacher teaches, but the learner realizes it in himself by himself. This phrase ‘in himself by himself’ comes often in the Gītā. ‘By meditation, some see the Self in the self by the self’ (XIII.24).

Verse 39 of Chapter IV here gives a summary of the qualification, process and goal. It is one of the places where Śaṅkara of his own accord states the essentials for finding Knowledge. He is singling it out as a central teaching in the light of which others are to be read.

The man of faith gets Knowledge. Intent on it, restraining the senses: having attained Knowledge, in no long time he goes to peace.

Faith is applied to the other means: faith in the holy texts, faith in the teacher’s presentation of them, faith in the methods of yoga, and faith in the goal. Faith has not only the ordinary meaning of firm belief, but a special meaning of steady commitment to a decision once taken. It is assumed that the decision has been taken after considering the different factors. Even so, nearly everyone experiences a weakening of resolve after doing some practice. It takes the form: ‘Well, after all, how do we know? It may be a waste of time, it may be unsettling, it may be dangerous, it may be a swindle.’ No new facts have appeared; it is just a sort of re-shuffling of ideas. At that time the spiritual will, technically called faith, says: ‘No! We have been into all that, and we made our decision. Now we will keep to it.’

The man of faith will persist and finally attain. But (Śaṅkara comments) he may be very slow. While things are comfortable, he may think: ‘I will do it, but later on’. So there is another requirement: ‘intent on it’ (tat-parah). It is literally, ‘putting that above all’, so it means that the drive for Knowledge must be the first priority. Dr Shastri’s teacher, Shri Dada, like the Buddha, left his home when family pressure made it impossible to pursue the quest there. But this is not a rule: Shri Dada returned to a home life after his training, whereas the Buddha never again set up a home. In the Gītā, Arjuna, a married man, is not recommended to leave family life. But ‘tat-parah’ does mean to be independent of anything in the world, and to be able to demonstrate that independence if necessary

Intensity of search must invigorate all the other elements of yoga, external or internal. Dr Shastri said: Do not run to serve and serve blindly: seek to know the true nature of man and the universe. Again, without intensity of search, meditation can easily drift into mere dreaming, where there is no change and none is expected.

The last of the three essentials is restraining the senses. The classical example is given in II.58. As a tortoise withdraws its limbs into its shell, so the meditator must withdraw the senses. (The same simile is given by St Teresa of Avila, with the comment: ‘Whoever it was that said this, doubtless knew what he was talking about.’) There are countless references to the process in the Gītā, often by the word ‘yukta’. This comes from the same root as ‘yoga’; and could be translated yoked-in- meditation. In many cases Śaṅkara explains it as samādhi or samāhita-citta.

This is not the same meditation practice as in some Buddhist sects, in which awareness of surroundings is retained, but inner reactions to them are minimal. In the yogic meditation the senses ultimately do not function at all. They are, so to speak, asleep. If the meditation is light, they can be roused by a strong stimulus. But in the deep samādhi, the withdrawal is not disturbed by anything external. On this point it is similar to what is called trance and Dr Shastri occasionally so translated it for such cases.

The working of the triple process – faith, intensity and meditation are illustrated briefly in Śaṅkara’s two commentaries to the Kena Upaniṣad. An advanced pupil, confident in his knowledge of truth, is told by his teacher: ‘If you think you know it, little indeed you know’. The pupil, shaken, goes to sit in a solitary place, and concentrates in samâdhi on the text ‘I am Brahman’. He has to bring to a unity the ideas learned from the texts and teacher, with the different ideas of what he actually experiences. He has till now tacitly accepted the difference, making it disappear like a sort of vanishing conjuring trick. But now he has to press the point, calling on all his resources of courage. Finally the needle-point of concentration pierces through the ‘I’ of the text to the reality beyond it. He comes back to the teacher, saying: ‘I do not think “I know”, but it is not that I do not know.’ The Upaniṣad confirms this with the verse: ‘Unknown to those who know; known to those who do not know.’

In the same way, Zen teachers sometimes give riddles. Here an impossibility is often clear from the outset. ‘What was your original face before your mother was born?’ The Koan riddle is solved only on a trans-personal basis. To think or say ‘I have solved it’ is a personal assertion which shows that the koan has not been passed through. Nor does a teacher ever say: ‘You have solved it.’

In many mystical traditions, a current appears from time to time to the effect that the statement of truth must be sufficient. All subsidiary methods such as meditation are less-than-truth, and so untruth, and so obstacles. Such schools die out in a few generations, as did the Zen school of Shen-hui in China which turned into theoretical philosophy. As to why they give up meditation practice, there are various reasons. One of them may be in a remark by a young British abstract painter. Asked why he had rejected representational art with its rules of perspective and so on, he answered briefly: ‘Couldn’t do it.’

Bukko, the great Chinese Zen master who inspired the Japanese rulers to repulse the Mongol invasions at the end of the thirteenth century, was asked by a scholar: ‘We have the truth handed down by Buddhas and patriarchs. How should any “way” be required?’ Bukko replied: ‘The seeds have indeed been sown, but the shoots do not appear.’ He explained no further. Zen teachers do not like to explain. The saying is, ‘If I hold up one comer and he cannot come back with the other three, I do not teach him further.’ We are left to infer that if the ground has not been broken up and the stones and weeds removed, the seeds will not germinate. The ground, so to say, cannot take them.

It can be the same on the mental planes. In 1982, Aspect in Paris made the first experimental verification of non-locality, and necessary involvement of consciousness, on the quantum level in physics. It was a conclusion against which Einstein and Schrödinger had fought: they hated the implications of the quantum physics they had helped to found. Einstein said bluntly: ‘I refuse to believe that an ant changes the universe by looking at it.’ Again, he made his famous remark: ‘God does not play dice with the universe.’ To which the answer came: ‘How does he know?’

As has been pointed out, there should have been an earthquake in science, but in fact there was not. To provide a conceptual basis for the results ‘stretches the human imagination further than it can go; the pointer is neither up nor down, but somehow hovers in between’. In fact no scientist believes it except a few physicists. And this is not so unreasonable, because there do not seem to be any immediate consequences. Things still work. As Ernst Mach in Prague held over a century ago, the job of science is not to tell us truth, but to show us how to make things work, so that we can use them for our lives.

Somehow – apparently under the control of consciousness – the uncertainties of the quantum level become certainties of ordinary experience, which are assumed to be ‘out there, independent of consciousness’. There is a tacit agreement to ignore the recent developments. Lip-service may be paid, but the mind simply cannot take them in.

In the same way in Vedanta, the texts may be known, but not taken in. As an instance of it, look at the Gītā itself. A main teaching in its eighteen chapters is that the world is the māyā of the Lord. The Gītā declares itself as given on a battlefield, awaiting the signal to begin. It ends when the signal is given.

One may imagine the following conversation:

‘It takes me at least two hours to read aloud the Gītā. The two armies couldn’t have waited that long: historically, it just couldn’t happen’.

‘Could it happen in a dream?’
‘Oh, in a dream yes. It could happen in a dream’.
‘This is the dream’.

The Gītā at the end of chapter II declares that this waking world is night for the sage who sees. Śaṅkara explains this as like a dream, and (elsewhere) like a mirage, like a castle in the sky and like other illusions. They have practical reality (thirsty travellers make for a mirage), following laws on their own. Nevertheless there is an instinctive rejection of the idea that the whole world-experience is as an illusion; the texts say it, but the mind cannot take them in.

So the three essential methods – faith, intensity of search and with- drawal-meditation – are necessary. The three external methods, such as attendance on a teacher, are natural expressions of faith. They become genuine when they express intensity of search.

If we look through the Gītā, we see that Arjuna does come to get the requirements for yoga. Some of them appear only after the terrible shock of Chapter XI. His faith develops from the incredulity of IV.4 to the reverence and prostration of XI.44. His questions change from the personal ‘Which shall I do?’ (II.7 – though immediately followed by ‘I will not fight’) to intense search for truth (X.16) in meditation (X.17). When yoga is matured, the yogin finds Knowledge in himself by himself, or as X.15 puts it, the Lord knows himself by himself.

The teacher in the Gītā is the universal Lord, the supreme Self. As chapter X declares, that universal Self takes on limited divine forms such as Rāma, Kṛṣṇa, Yama, god of death, Kandarpa, god of love, Skanda, god of death, and also the forms of human teachers such as Vyāsa, compiler of the Vedas. What is the role of the human teacher, the Knower and the Truth-seer of IV.34? He explains the holy texts, and answers questions on them.

But there is something more, best perhaps described symbolically The saying in the yogic schools is: ‘You cannot see the dirt on your own face.’ The yogin purifies his body and mind by the methods of yoga under the direction of the teacher. He is aware of the taints, and works hard to remove them. But there remains a small piece of dirt which he does not know about, because it is so close to him. This is the dirt on one’s own face. It is the teacher who takes up a clean cloth when the pupil presents himself face-to-face. Then a gentle wipe, wipe – and the true universal face shines forth, as it was before Mother World-illusion was born

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