He who learns must suffer, and, even in our sleep, pain that we cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God. - Aeschylus

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Bhagavad Gita: The Yoga of Krishna

Listen to the embedded podcast version of this post or read the written version below.

Yoga classes are offered at my gym, and I have friends who attend those classes regularly.  This is not the kind of yoga I'm interested in learning more about.  The modern popularization of what is called yoga in the West has left many people with the general impression that yoga is a matter of fancy stretching and breathing techniques.

It's particularly popular among those who see it an alternative way of increasing their general health, and there is some limited evidence that it may contribute to some improvements in physical and psychological health when practiced regularly.  The practices most Westerners think of as yoga are derived from certain portions of Hatha Yoga, which were disseminated fairly widely in the West in the past century.

Unsurprisingly, over the decades it became clear that what many Westerners wanted was something that they could easily fit into their worldviews and into their schedules, something that was exotic enough to be interesting and fun but didn't require a deeper understanding of the cosmology and spiritual practices shared by multiple Indian religions.  Of course, yoga as practiced in West did draw some people to explore Indian religions more seriously, but most seem content to enjoy the stretching and breathing techniques without going so far as to really appreciate the traditions from which those practices were born.

This form of yoga, a yoga which is stripped of much of its traditional religious meaning to accommodate those who weren't particularly interested in learning about such things, is not the yoga spoken of by Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita.  The Bhagavad Gita is a discourse that strikes at the heart of spiritual matters, and it is a discourse that takes place on a great battlefield at the climax of the great epic known as the Mahabharata.

The battle is about to be joined by great warriors, and it is at this time of calm before the storm that Krishna helps Arjuna to understand his place in this life and the nature of spiritual fulfillment.  Arjuna is in no hurry to kill the other great warriors, and expresses sorrow at the thought that he might deprive them of life and then have to live with such a great weight of guilt.  Krishna tries to offer him some perspective first:

"You speak sincerely, but your sorrow has no cause.  The wise grieve neither for the living nor for the dead.  There has never been a time when you and I and the kings gathered here have not existed, nor will there be a time when we will cease to exist.  As the same person inhabits the body through childhood, youth, and old age, so too at the time of death he attains another body.  The wise are not deluded by these changes.  
When the senses contact sense objects, a person experiences cold or heat, pleasure or pain.  These experiences are fleeting; they come and go.  Bear them patiently, Arjuna.  Those who are unaffected by these changes, who are the same in pleasure and pain, are truly wise and fit for immortality.  Assert your strength and realize this!
The impermanent has no reality; reality lies in the eternal.  Those who have seen the boundary between these two have attained the end of all knowledge.  Realize that which pervades the universe and is indestructible; no power can affect this unchanging, imperishable reality.  The body is mortal, but that which dwells in the body is immortal and immeasurable.  Therefore, Arjuna, fight in this battle."

After explaining that death is not the end and that life continues ceaselessly for the warrior after his death in battle, and that this should steel Arjuna's resolve, Krishna goes on to conclude that Arjuna should fight rather than avoiding the deaths of other great warriors.

He continues to elucidate the degree to which we are eternal, the seemingly impossible persistence of Ātman, which is translated in the Source I'm using as "Self" and is a concept shared by many Indian schools of thought.

"One believes he is the slayer, another believes he is the slain.  Both are ignorant; there is neither slayer nor slain.  You were never born; you will never die.  You have never changed; you can never change.  Unborn, eternal, immutable, immemorial, you do not die when the body dies.  Realizing that which is indestructible, eternal, unborn, and unchanging, how can you slay or cause another to slay?
As one abandons worn-out clothes and acquires new ones, so when the body is worn out a new one is acquired by the Self, who lives within.
The Self cannot be pierced by weapons or burned by fire; water cannot wet it, nor can the wind dry it.  The Self cannot be pierced or burned, made wet or dry.  It is everlasting and infinite, standing on the motionless foundations of eternity.  The Self is unmanifested, beyond all thought, beyond all change.  Knowing this, you should not grieve.
O mighty Arjuna, even if you believe the Self to be subject to birth and death, you should not grieve.  Death is inevitable for the living; birth is inevitable for the dead.  Since these are unavoidable, you should not sorrow.  Every creature is unmanifested at first and then attains manifestation.  When its end has come, it once again becomes unmanifested.  What is there to lament in this? 
The glory of the Self is beheld by a few, and a few describe it; a few listen, but many without understanding.  The Self of all beings, living within the body, is eternal and cannot be harmed.  Therefore, do not grieve."

Unlike the Buddha, Krishna does not propose that the end of Ātman is either possible or desirable.  Instead, he asserts quite strongly that it is not possible for the end of the Self to be reached because it is grounded in an all-pervading eternal reality.

Krishna also points out that even if it were true that death is the final end of our consciousness, this is not good cause for sorrow at the thought of death for one's self or others.  It would be irrational to feel sorrow that what did not exist before has returned to non-existence at a later time, especially when this is the inevitable expected end.

"Considering your dharma, you should not vacillate.  For a warrior, nothing is higher than a war against evil.  The warrior confronted with such a war should be pleased, Arjuna, for it comes as an open gate to heaven.  But if you do not participate in this battle against evil, you will incur sin, violating your dharma and your honor.
The story of your dishonor will be repeated endlessly: and for a man of honor, dishonor is worse than death.  These brave warriors will think you have withdrawn from battle out of fear, and those who formerly esteemed you will treat you with disrespect.  Your enemies will ridicule your strength and say things that should not be said.  What could be more painful than this?
Death means the attainment of heaven; victory means the enjoyment of the earth.  Therefore rise up, Arjuna, resolved to fight!  Having made yourself alike in pain and pleasure, profit and loss, victory and defeat, engage in this great battle and you will be freed from sin."

The term dharma can have a fairly wide range of meanings depending on the particular religious and literary context of its usage, but in this case Krishna is using it to refer to Arjuna's moral duty, to the correct way of living that follows as a natural consequence of what Arjuna is: a warrior.  If Arjuna were to avoid war, he would be denying his own nature and his own place in the natural order.

Krishna continues with additional arguments to persuade Arjuna to fulfill his dharma, first applying the stick and then the carrot.  He notes that it would be a terrible dishonor for a warrior to turn away from battle, and that it would have lasting painful consequences as a result.  He also suggests that Arjuna set his sights on reaching Svarga, translated here as "heaven" though it differs significantly from Western understandings of what the word "heaven" means.

"You have heard the intellectual explanation of Sankya, Arjuna; now listen to the principles of yoga.  By practicing these you can break through the bonds of karma.  On this path effort never goes to waste, and there is no failure.  Even a little effort toward spiritual awareness will protect you from the greatest fear.
Those who follow this path, resolving deep within themselves to seek me alone, attain singleness of purpose.  For those who lack resolution, the decisions of life are many-branched and endless.
There are ignorant people who speak flowery words and take delight in the letter of the law, saying that there is nothing else.  Their hearts are full of selfish desires, Arjuna.  Their idea of heaven is their own enjoyment, and the aim of all their activities is pleasure and power.  The fruit of their actions is continual rebirth.  Those whose minds are swept away by the pursuit of pleasure and power are incapable of following the supreme goal and will not attain samadhi."

But Krishna does not stop at proposing the pursuit of heaven; he calls Arjuna to something even greater: the liberation of the mind from all worrisome thoughts...and any thoughts at all.  This is samadhi, the single-pointedness of mind which frees us from the terrible torrent of our own thoughts, rushing and crushing our happiness as they flow along the currents of our mind.

This protects us from our fears, which must be eliminated as we strive toward the lack of striving which accompanies samadhi.  It also liberates us from entering into the action of the gunas, the three sets of qualities which anchor us to this world and prevent us from fully participating in the divine life of the One who lies beyond even the happy afterlife of svarga.

"The scriptures describe the three gunas.  But you should be free from the action of the gunas, established in eternal truth, self-controlled, without any sense of duality or the desire to acquire and hoard.
Just as the reservoir is of little use when the whole countryside is flooded, scriptures are of little use to the illumined man who sees the Lord everywhere. 
You have the right to work, but never to the fruit of work.  You should never engage in action for the sake of reward, nor should you long for inaction.  Perform work in this world, Arjuna, as a man established within himself - without selfish attachments, and alike in success and defeat.  For yoga is perfect evenness of mind."

The point Krishna is making here is deeper than a mere admonition against greed; he is calling us to be fully detached from the outcomes of our actions in all circumstances, to fulfill our dharma completely without regard to whether or not it leads to material success.

The yoga of which he speaks is the union experienced by one who sees the Lord everywhere, who viscerally knows that the divine life is pervading everywhere we look and move, and is even in our very being.  This constant sense of being united to the divine life produces evenness of mind; joining the source of our life fully leads to a full life.

"Seek refuge in the attitude of detachment and you will amass the wealth of spiritual awareness.  Those who are motivated only by a desire for the fruits of action are miserable, for they are constantly anxious about the results of what they do.  When consciousness is unified, however, all vain anxiety is left behind.  There is no cause for worry, whether things go well or ill.  Therefore, devote yourself to the disciplines of yoga, for yoga is skill in action.
The wise unify their consciousness and abandon attachment to the fruits of action, which binds a person to continual rebirth.  Thus they attain a state beyond all evil.
When your mind has overcome the confusion of duality, you will attain the state of holy indifference to things you hear and things you have heard.  When you are unmoved by the confusion of ideas and your mind is completely united in deep samadhi, you will attain the state of perfect yoga."

This is a life in which we are not weighed down by the burden of worrying about material things, a life in which we are single-minded in our awareness of our oneness with the One who pervades all things.  This yoga of which Krishna (the avatar of Vishnu the Preserver who pervades all things) speaks is a joining in the magnificent dance of the divine life by which we move beyond the reach of the attachments that keep us chained to the wheel of saṃsāra.

The Yoga of Krishna - The Wisdom of Krishna - The Meditation of Krishna

Note: The above is a depiction of Krishna dancing.


  1. It is problematic for any religion when morally right action becomes simply a way to serve one's own self-interest. In these passages, Krishna seems to argue for something that it much more like doing good for its own sake. I am not an expert on eastern religions, but I have seen that Christianity in particular can become a quite intolerable religion when things like faith in Christ, loving one's neighbor, and giving sacrificially of oneself simply become merit badges by which one establishes one's moral superiority or earns one's "ticket to heaven." This can happen both in ancient forms of Christianity (i.e. Catholic & Orthodox churches) or in post-Reformation churches, although the former tend to self-correct these problems more easily than the latter (with their increased emphasis on the virtue of humility).

  2. I found this extremely interesting, Samuel!
    Thanks for the write up.