Bhagavad Gita

The Bhagavad Gita: Two Paths

Many spiritual traditions have some picture of "Two Paths," one for the righteous, one for the wicked.  One for the pure in heart, one for the impure.  Jesus famously used the image of a separation between sheep and goats in the final judgment.

In the Hebrew Scriptures, Psalm 1 captures this picture as well:

"Blessed is the one who does not walk in step with the wicked
 or stand in the way that sinners take or sit in the company of mockers,
 but whose delight is in the law of the Lord,
 and who meditates on it day and night.
 That person is like a tree planted by streams of water,
 which yields its fruit in season
 and whose leaf does not wither.
 Whatever they do prospers.

 Not so the wicked! 
 They are like chaff that the wind blows away.
 Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
 nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous.

 For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous,
 but the way of the wicked leads to destruction."

Rarely does life break down in so simple a way.  Outside of characterizations, it is hard to put any one person purely in the category of "righteous," or "wicked."  As an old pastor of mine used to say, we are all a holy mix.   But the image of Two Paths is helpful.  The righteous path is an ideal to strive for.  The evil path is a disaster to avoid. 

In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna contrasts those who have Divine qualities with those who are demonic.  In Chapter 16, He counsels Arjuna to remain on the Divine, spiritual path.  

"Be fearless and pure; never waver in your determination or your dedication to the spiritual life.  Give freely.  Be self-controlled, sincere, truthful, loving, and full of the desire to serve.  Realize the truth of the scriptures; learn to be detached and take joy in renunciation.  Do not get angry or harm any living creature, but be compassionate and gentle, show good will to all.  Cultivate vigor, patience, will, purity; avoid malice and pride.  Then, Arjuna, you will achieve your divine destiny.

Other qualities, Arjuna, make a person more and more inhuman: hypocrisy, arrogance, conceit, anger, cruelty, ignorance.  The divine qualities lead to freedom; the demonic, to bondage.  But do not grieve, Arjuna; you were born with divine attributes.

Some people have divine tendencies, others demonic.  I have described the divine at length, Arjuna; now listen while I describe the demonic. 

The demonic do things they should avoid and avoid the things they should do.  They have no sense of uprightness, purity, or truth.  'There is no God,' they say, 'no truth, no spiritual law, no moral order.  The basis of life is sex; what else can it be?'  Holding such distorted views, possessing scant discrimination, they become enemies of the world, causing suffering and destruction.

Hypocritical, proud, and arrogant, living in delusion and clinging to deluded ideas, insatiable in their desires, they purse their unclean ends.  Although burdened with fears that end only with death, they still maintain with complete assurance, 'Gratification of lust is the highest that life can offer.'  Bound on all sides by scheming and anxiety, driven by anger and greed, they amass by any means they can a hoard of money for the satisfaction of their cravings. 

'I got this today,' they say; 'tomorrow I shall get that.  This wealth is mine, and that will be mine too.  I have destroyed my enemies.  I shall destroy others too!  Am I not like God?  I enjoy what I want.  I am successful.  I am powerful.  I am happy.  I am rich and well-born.  Who is equal to me?  I will perform sacrifices and give gifts, and rejoice in my own generosity.'  This is how they go on, deluded by ignorance.  Bound by their greed and entangled in a web of delusion, whirled about by a fragmented mind, they fall into a dark hell...

There are three gates to this self-destructive hell: lust, anger, and greed.  Renounce these three.  Those who escape these three gates of darkness, Arjuna, seek what is best and attain life's supreme goal.  Others disregard the teachings of the scriptures.  Driven by selfish desire, they miss the goal of life, miss even happiness and success.

Therefore let the scriptures be your guide in what to do and what not to do.  Understand their teachings; then act in accordance with them."

The Bhagavad Gita, 16:1-16, 21-24


This will end the Bhagavad Gita series.  Reading through it is probably the easiest way to understand basic Hindu thought.  Although Hinduism is wildly diverse as a religion, this text is highly revered among most Hindus.  I find the type of meditation described in Chapter 6 especially interesting and connected to my own practice of Centering Prayer.  You could practically lift Chapter 6 out and put it right into The Cloud of Unknowing.  These authors are speaking the same language.  

For more on basic Hindu thought and its relation to Buddhism from the perspective of Alan Watts, check out the following brief lecture.




The Bhagavad Gita: The Practice of Meditation

In Chapter 6 of the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna describes the Practice of Meditation:

"Those who aspire to the state of yoga should seek the Self in inner solitude through meditation.  With body and mind controlled they should constantly practice one-pointedness, free from expectations and attachment to material possessions.  

Select a clean spot, neither too high nor too low, and seat yourself firmly on a cloth, a deerskin, and kusha grass.  Then, once seated, strive to still your thoughts.  Make you mind one-pointed in meditation, and your heart will be purified.  Hold your body, head, and neck firmly in a straight line, and keep your eyes from wandering.  With all fears dissolved in the peace of the Self and all actions dedicated to Brahman, controlling the mind and fixing it on me, sit in meditation with me as your only goal.  With senses and mind constantly controlled through meditation, united with the Self within, an aspirant attains nirvana, the state of abiding joy and peace in me.  

Arjuna, those who eat too much or eat too little, who sleep too much or sleep too little, will not succeed in meditation.  But those who are temperate in eating and sleeping, work and recreation, will come to the end of sorrow through meditation.  Through constant effort they learn to withdraw the mind from selfish cravings and absorb it in the Self.  Thus they attain the state of union.

When meditation is mastered, the mind is unwavering like the flame of a lamp in a windless place.  In the still mind, in the depths of meditation, the Self reveals itself.  Beholding the Self by means of the Self, an aspirant knows the joy and peace of complete fulfillment.  Having attained that abiding joy beyond the senses, revealed in the still mind, they never swerve from the eternal truth.  They desire nothing else and cannot be shaken by the heaviest burden of sorrow. 

The practice of meditation frees one from all affliction.  This is the path of yoga.  Follow it with determination and sustained enthusiasm.  Renouncing wholeheartedly all selfish desires and expectations, use your will to control the senses.  Little by little, through patience and repeated effort, the mind will become still in the Self.

Whenever the mind wanders, restless and diffuse in its search for satisfaction without, lead it within; train it to rest in the Self.  Abiding joy comes to those who still the mind.  Freeing themselves from the taint of self-will, with their consciousness unified, they become one with Brahman."

The Bhagavad Gita, 6:10-27

If there is one passage that sums up the Gita, this is it.  By experiencing the Atman, the Self, one becomes completely fulfilled, and is thus capable of acting in the world without concern for self.  There is nothing left to gain.  


The Bhagavad Gita: Karma Yoga

In Chapter 3, Krishna tells Arjuna that he must practice Karma Yoga, the path of selfless service, in order to achieve his spiritual goal.  

The Bhagavad Gita discusses several forms of yoga – in this context meaning "paths to realization" – which aspirants must practice.  Easwaran's explanation in his Introduction is helpful:

"The Gita does not present a system of philosophy.  It offers something to every seeker after God, of whatever temperament, by whatever path.  The reason for this universal appeal is that it is basically practical: it is a handbook for Self-realization and a guide to action.  

Some scholars will find practicality a tall claim, because the Gita is full of lofty and even abstruse philosophy.  Yet even its philosophy is not there to satisfy intellectual curiosity; it is meant to explain to spiritual aspirants why they are asked to undergo certain disciplines.  Like any handbook, the Gita makes most sense when it is practiced.  

As the traditional chapter titles put it, the Gita is brahma-vidyayam yogashastra, a textbook of the supreme science of yoga.  But yoga is a word with many meanings – as many, perhaps, as there are paths to Self-realization.  What kind of yoga does the Gita teach?  The common answer is that it presents three yogas or even four – the four main paths of Hindu mysticism.  In jnana yoga, the yoga of knowledge, aspirants use their will and discrimination to disidentify themselves from the body, mind, and senses until they know they are nothing but the Self.  The followers of bhakti yoga, the yoga of devotion, achieve the same goal by identifying themselves completely with the Lord in love; by and large, this is the path taken by most of the mystics of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.  In karma yoga, the yoga of selfless action, the aspirants dissolve their identification with body and mind by identifying with the whole of life, forgetting the finite self in the service of others.  An the followers of raja yoga, the yoga of meditation, discipline the mind and senses until the mind-process is suspended in a healing stillness and they merge in the Self.  

Indians like to classify, and the eighteen chapters of the Gita are said to break up into three six-chapter parts.  The first third, according to this, deals with karma yoga, the second with jnana yoga, and the last with bhakti yoga: that is, the Gita begins with the way of selfless action, passes into the way of Self-knowledge, and ends with the way of love.  This scheme is not tight, and non-Hindu readers may find it difficult to discover in the text.  But the themes are there, and Krishna clearly shifts his emphasis as he goes on using this one word yoga.  Here he focuses on transcendental knowledge, there on selfless action, here on meditation, there on love.

Thus the Gita offers something for every kind of spiritual aspirant, and for two thousand years each of the major schools of Indian philosophy has quoted the Gita in defense of its particular claims.  This fluidity sometimes exasperates scholars who feel the Gita contradicts itself.  It also puzzled Arjuna, the faithful representative of you and me.  'Krishna,' he says at the beginning of Chapter 3, 'you've been telling me that knowledge (jnana) is better than action (karma); so why do you urge me into such terrible action?  Your words are inconsistent; the confuse me.  The me one path to the highest good.' (3:1-2)  No doubt he speaks for every reader at this point, and for those who go on wanting one path only, the confusion simply grows worse.

For those who try to practice the Gita, however, there is a thread of inner consistency running through Krishna's advice.  Like a person walking around the same object, the Gita takes more than one point of view.  Whenever Krishna describes one of the traditional paths to God he looks at it from the inside, extolling its virtues over the others.  For the time being, that is the path; when he talks about yoga, he means that one particular yoga."

Here Krishna encourages Arjuna to practice this yoga:

"At the beginning of time I declared two paths for the pure heart: jnana yoga, the contemplative path of spiritual wisdom, and karma yoga, the active path of selfless service.  One who shirks action does not attain freedom; no one can gain perfection by abstaining from work.  Indeed, there is no one who rests for even an instant; all creatures are driven to action by their own nature.

Those who abstain from action while allowing the mind to dwell on sensual pleasure cannot be called sincere spiritual aspirants.  But they excel who control their senses through the mind, using them for selfless service.  Fulfill all your duties; action is better than inaction.  Even to maintain your body, Arjuna, you are obliged to act.  Selfish action imprisons the world.  Act selflessly, without thought of personal profit.

At the beginning, mankind and the obligation of selfless service were created together.  Through selfless service, you will always be fruitful and find the fulfillment of your desires: this is the promise of the Creator...

...Every selfless act, Arjuna, is born from Brahman, the eternal, infinite Godhead.  Brahman is present in every act of service.  All life turns on this law O Arjuna.  Those who violate it, indulging the senses for their own pleasure and ignoring the needs of others, have wasted their life.  But those who realize the Self are always satisfied.  Having found the source of joy and fulfillment, they no longer seek happiness from the external world.  They have nothing to gain or lose by any action; neither people nor things can affect their security.

Strive constantly to serve the welfare of the world; by devotion to selfless work one attains the supreme goal of life."

The Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 3


The Bhagavad Gita: Fettered No More by Selfish Attachments

Although not technically included in the Vedas (the earliest and most authoritative scriptures of Hinduism), The Bhagavad Gita may be the most famous text to come out of the Vedic tradition as a whole.  The text itself is embedded within a massive Indian epic, the Mahabharata, but most scholars believe that the Gita was inserted into this larger story by a later editor.  The Bhagavad Gita is most often pulled out of the Mahabharata and read alone as a complete document in and of itself. 

The author of the Gita shares the common Hindu metaphysical view that at the core of every human being lies the Atman, a spiritual absolute, or "God in us."  Furthermore, this divine core of humanity is one with Brahman, the Divine Source of Existence.  From the perspective of the Gita, it is by realizing this experientially that the spiritual seeker will attain their ultimate goal.  Throughout the Gita, Krishna – an incarnation of God – leads Prince Arjuna through his own spiritual battle, counseling him on how to "realize the Self," or find Union with God.

This series will include quotations from a translation by Eknath Easwaran.  His introductory remarks alone make this version worth buying, and his ongoing commentary throughout the work is illuminating.  I don't think there's a more valuable commentary on the market. 

In this first quotation, Arjuna asks Krishna what a life looks like for those who are established in the Self.  Krishna answers as follows:

Arjuna:  "Tell me of those who live established in wisdom, ever aware of the Self, O Krishna.  How do they talk?  How do they sit?  How move about?"

Krishna:  "They live in wisdom who see themselves in all and all in them, who have renounced every selfish desire and sense craving tormenting the heart.  Neither agitated by grief nor hankering after pleasure, they live free from lust and fear and anger.  Established in meditation, they are truly wise.  Fettered no more by selfish attachments, they are neither elated by good fortune nor depressed by bad.  Such are the seers.

Even as a tortoise draws in its limbs, the wise can draw in their senses at will.  Aspirants abstain from sense pleasures, but they still crave for them.  These cravings all disappear when they see the highest goal.  Even of those who tread the path, the stormy senses can sweep off the mind.  They live in wisdom who subdue their senses and keep their minds ever absorbed in me.

When you keep thinking about sense objects, attachment comes. Attachment breeds desire, the lust of possession that burns to anger.  Anger clouds the judgment; you can no longer learn from past mistakes.  Lost is the power to choose between what is wise and what is unwise, and your life is utter waste.  But when you move amidst the world of sense, free from attachment and aversion alike, there comes the peace in which all sorrows end, and you live in the wisdom of the Self...

...They are forever free who renounce all selfish desires and break away from the ego-cage of 'I,' 'me,' 'mine' to be united with the Lord.  This is the supreme state.  Attain to this, and pass from death to immortality."

– The Bhagavad Gita, 2:54-65, 71-72

The themes of being free from attachments, and steady in the midst of both success and defeat, will return throughout the Gita.  The seer who is established in the Self has nothing more to gain from the world.  He has found his ultimate fulfillment and is thus untroubled by, and unattached to, the things, experiences, and events of the world, whether good or bad.