The Spiritual Teacher in the Bhagavad Gita

The Gita is a teaching for crisis. In many ways it is quite different from the situations in the Upanishads, where a seeker after truth attends on a teacher. The Upanishadic procedure is, however, described in a group of Gita 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 Sankara 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 Gita, 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 Krishna; he simply respects him as a friend of good judgement. 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 Kesava. 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 Krishna, nor asked him questions about knowledge of truth. How is it then that the teaching of the Gita—which proclaims itself to be Upanishadic—is given to him?

It is a case of the ‘dbarma of emergency’. In an emergency, preconditions may be set aside. To take 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, so to speak, is in agony.

Krishna in the Gita 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 Gita here, as in other places, makes a distinction between merely knowing texts and ideas, and seeing the truth in oneself. In the Gita, Knowledge (Jnana) normally means full realization of the supreme Self. But in a few places, the word for Knowledge (jnana) is paired with a word such as Realization (vijhana) or Yoga (identity-meditation, when all senses are inoperative). In those places, Sankara explains that Knowledge (jnana) means intellectual understanding in the form of ideas, as against direct experience beyond ideas. For instance, in VII.1and 2, the Lord says he will teach, to a yogin, jnana and its vijhana. Sankara explains a yogin as one who practises bringing the mind to samadhi-meditation on the Lord; jnana is Knowledge as an idea, whereas vijhana 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. Sankara says that here Knowledge [jnana] 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 nishtha or firm establishment.

In IV.34 above, the Gita is similarly distinguishing text-knowers from those who not only know but also directly see the truth (tattva-darsin). It is only these last, says Sankara, 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 Sankara points out, these three things are only external, and they may be done deceptively. He uses a strong word, maya-vi-tva, which means something like the trickiness of a magician.

Apt in this context is an example: an incident at a temple in the Himalayas, where a small image of the god Siva 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 Siva. 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 Siva’, 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 Siva 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 Siva 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 naive 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.

The wise counsel: ‘Serve without being slavish.’ Sankara, commenting on how service to the Lord should be done, explains: ‘He should think that he is doing this as an agent of the Lord, but without the idea “May the Lord be pleased with this”.’ If this last thought accompanies the action, the mind will be disturbed. Should the action fail by some outside event, the agent will tend to think: v’Well, this was done purely as an offering to the Lord. Surely he might have protected it. The Lord is ungrateful.’ The diaries even of future saints record such thoughts. Sankara says that it is essential to rise above them by practising the Yoga of even-mindedness.

These three—reverence, questioning, and service—are 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 in IV.38, 39.

There is no purifier in the world like Knowledge:
The one who is perfected in Yoga,
will in time find it himself 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 Gita, 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 Gita 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. The rise of Knowledge however shows them up as illusions, and takes away any remainder en bloc. Sankara elsewhere compares it to the operations of laundrymen, who first remove the major patches of dirt and grime from the cloths separately, but finally immerse the cloths wholesale in the cleansing water. The process of Yoga is explained by Sankara as Karma Yoga and Samadhi Yoga, repeating his analysis under II.39. Samadhi Yoga is the most refined part of Karma Yoga; he says that the perfection consists in purification and becoming able to desire release.

Such a true seeker will ‘in time’—after long practice of the Yoga, says Sankara—‘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 Gita 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 Mundaka Upanishad says, is turning away from the splendour of the Lord within.

The truth-seeing teacher teaches, but the learner realizes it in himself by himself. This is a frequent theme in the Gita. ‘By meditation, some see the self in the self by the self.’ (XIII.24)

Verse 39 gives a summary of the qualifications, process, and end of the path. This is one of the places where Sankara of his own accord states that these are the essentials for finding Knowledge. He is singling it out as a central teaching in the light of which others can 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 refers 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 steady belief, but a special meaning of persistence in the decision once taken. The decisions must be taken after considering the different factors. 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 our sensible decision.’

The man of faith will persist and finally attain. But (Sankara 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, ‘with that above all’, so it means that the drive for Knowledge must be the first priority. In the Gita, Arjuna 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.

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 Gita, often by the word yukta. This comes from the same root as Yoga; and could be translated as yoked-in-meditation. In many cases Sankara explains it as samadhi or samahita.

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 given up. In the yogic meditation the senses ultimately do not function at all. They are so to speak asleep, though like a sleeping man, they can be roused by a strong stimulus. But in the deep samadhi, the withdrawal is not disturbed by anything external.

The working of the triple process— faith, intensity, and meditation—are illustrated briefly in Sankara’s two commentaries to the Kena Upanishad. An advanced pupil, confident in his text-knowledge of truth, is told by his teacher: ‘If you think, “I have known it well”, little indeed you know.’ The pupil, shaken, goes and sits in a solitary place, and concentrates in samadhi on the text ‘I am Brahman*. He has to bring to a unity the ideas learned from the texts and teacher, with the separate ones of what he actually experiences. He has tacitly accepted the difference, but now he has to press the point with all the resources of his mind. 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 it well”, but it is not that I do not know.’ The Upanishad confirms this with the verse: ‘Unknown to those who know: known to those who do not know.’

In something of the same way, the Zen teachers sometimes give riddles. Here the impossibility is often clear in the text from the beginning. ‘Face south and see the Pole Star.’ The Koan is solved only on a trans-personal basis. To think or say ‘I have solved a koan’ is a personal assertion which shows that the koan has not been passed. Nor does a teacher say: ‘You have solved it’ when one has been passed through.

In many mystical schools 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. in fact, mistaken. Such schools die out in a few generations, as did the Zen school of Shenhui in China, which turned into theoretical philosophy. As to why they give up meditation, there are various reasons. One of them may perhaps be in the reply given by a young British abstract painter when asked why he 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 the question by a scholar, ‘We have the truth handed down by Buddhas and patriarchs: how is it that there is supposed to be a way?’ Bukko replied: ‘The seeds have indeed been sown, but the shoots do not appear.’ They do not like to explain. The saying is, ‘If I hold up one comer and he cannot come up with the other three, I do not teach him further.’ We can 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 Schrodinger had fought: they hated the implications of the quantum physics they had helped to found. Einstein remarked acidly: ‘I refuse to believe that an ant changes the universe by looking at it.’

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 simultaneously up and down, the particle is in two places at once.’ 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 Gita itself. A main teaching in its eighteen chapters is that the world is the Maya of the Lord. The Gita is given on a battlefield, awaiting the signal to begin. It ends when the signal is given.

‘It takes at least two hours to read aloud the Gita. 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 Gita at the end of chapter II declares that this waking world is night for the one who sees. Sankara explains this as like a dream, and (elsewhere) like mirage, like a castle in the sky and like other illusions. They have practical reality (travellers make for a mirage), following laws of their own. Nevertheless there is an instinctive rejection of the idea of world-illusion; the texts may be known, but the mind cannot take them in.

So the three essential methods— faith, intensity of search, and withdrawal-meditation—are necessary. The three external methods of attendance on a teacher are natural expressions of Faith. They become genuine when they express intensity of search.

If we look through the Gita we see that Arjuna does 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 reverence and prostration. 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.

Having taken as a bow the great weapon of the Secret Teaching,
One should fix in it the arrow sharpened by constant Meditation.
Drawing it with a mind filled with That (Brahman)
Penetrate, O good-looking youth, that Imperishable as the Mark.
The pranava (Aum) is the bow; the arrow is the self;
Brahman is said to be the mark.
With heedfulness is It to be penetrated;
One should become one with It as the arrow in the mark.
(Mundaka Upanishad, Chapter 2  Verses 3 and 4.)

The teacher in the Gita is the universal Lord, the supreme Self. As chapter X declares, that universal Self takes on limited divine forms such as Rama, Krishna, Yama-god of death, Kandarpa-god of love, Skanda-god of death, and also the forms of human teachers such as Vyasa, compiler of the Vedas. What is the role of the human teacher, the Knower and 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 yogi 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, – -and the true universal face shines forth, as it was before Mother World-illusion was born.


©Trevor Leggett


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