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

Friday, March 24, 2017

Bhagavad Gita: The Meditation of Krishna

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

Previously, in The Wisdom of Krishna, I examined what Krishna taught Arjuna about the nature and practice of wisdom.  Shortly after the teachings on wisdom referenced previously, Krishna goes on to teach Arjuna about the practice of meditation.  What we generally think of as meditation in the West is related to, but not quite the same as the meditation spoken of by Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita.

As I've mentioned before, 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.

After Krishna has answered his question about how to live wisely, he speaks further about unity with Brahman and the nature of Brahman.  And later he moves on to the practice of meditation, which he recommends to all spiritual aspirants.

"It is not those who lack energy or refrain from action, but those who work without expectation of reward who attain the goal of meditation.  Theirs is the true renunciation.  Therefore, Arjuna, you should understand that renunciation and the performance of selfless service are the same.  Those who cannot renounce attachment to the results of their work are far from the path.
For aspirants who want to climb the mountain of spiritual awareness, the path is selfless work; for those who have ascended to yoga the path is stillness and peace.  When you have freed yourself from attachment to the results of work, and from desires for the enjoyment of sense objects, you will ascend to the unitive state.
Reshape yourself through the power of your will; never let yourself be degraded by self-will.  The will is the only friend of the Self, and the will is the only enemy of the Self.
To those who have conquered themselves, the will is a friend.  But it is the enemy of those who have not found the Self within them."

After reiterating previous points about the contemplative life and the active life both being paths to union with the divine life, Krishna comes back to another familiar concept: Ātman.  This is the word being translated as "the Self" as distinct from one's self in the sense of the ego.  Unlike the self of the ego, that incorrigible pursuer of transient desires, Ātman is the most true and most real self, the enduring consciousness which can partake in the divine life.

The fullness of the ego and the fullness of Ātman are not compatible with one another.  We can see this clearly in the lives of those who have given themselves over to their addictions.  They become shadows of the true Self we know can shine forth from within them; the addict is lost to us, not because they have suffered physical death, but because they have pushed out the potential for the glory of human flourishing in favor of the next temporary high which does not ultimately satisfy.

Union with the divine means that our enslavement to the ego's constant call to the next pleasure, the next worry about what will happen to us, or the next attempt to avoid any small pain must be abolished.  Only our wills can be made strong enough to free us of the chains of desire which bind the ego, and only the consistent weakening of our wills can leave us trapped in addictions.

Strengthening our will in selfless service allows us to fight the ego's control more effectively, and as we release more of the ego's control over our lives, we can see more clearly the true Self, Ātman.  This helps us to meditate because it increasingly liberates us from our daily worries, and the meditation in turn helps us to overthrow more of the ego's control so that we can seek union with the divine.

"The supreme Reality stands revealed in the consciousness of those who have conquered themselves.  They live in peace, alike in cold and heat, pleasure and pain, praise and blame.
They are completely fulfilled by spiritual wisdom and Self-realization.  Having conquered their senses, they have climbed to the summit of human consciousness.  To such people a clod of dirt, a stone, and gold are the same.  They are equally disposed to family, enemies, and friends, to those who support them and those who are hostile, to the good and the evil alike.  Because they are impartial, they rise to great heights.
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."

Krishna teaches us that this conquering of the ego results in being able to transcend our previous constant focus on concerns about the material world, about the pursuit of possessions and wealth or social standing and prestige.  Paradoxically, it is precisely this detachment which leads people to become well-respected by many.

It is the person who participates in the divine life who can deal with people as they truly are, both recognizing their strengths and weaknesses and wondrous inherent value without performing those cold calculations made by the ego to determine whether our actions directly benefit us or not.  It is the conquering of the selfish instinct that leads us to be more like the divine sustainer of all that is: Vishnu.

Vishnu, whose avatar at this point and time is Krishna, speaking with Arjuna before a great battle, rains the blessings of life down upon the good and evil people alike, upon friends and enemies, and upon those who are supportive and those who are hostile.  This is part and parcel of the divine life: to give selflessly, even to those who hate you and set themselves against you.

Now that Krishna has expounded a bit on the benefit of meditation, he explains to Arjuna how to go about meditating:

"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 your 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 fear 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."

The description Krishna provides of how one ought to meditate is drawn from traditional Indian contemplative practices regarding seating and posture and one-pointedness.  But this meditation is not the meditation of contemporary mindfulness movements.  Rather than directing us to stand clear of our own minds, Krishna bids us to fill our minds with an unwavering contemplation of the divine life which is embodied in Krishna.

He warns us that the taking of ascetic practices to extremes or self-indulgence in transient pleasures will prevent us from effective meditation.  When the mind is addicted to seeking the next transient pleasure and avoiding the next feeling of pain, it cannot focus sufficiently in meditation.  And when the mind is distracted by constant hunger pangs and the pain of dehydration, it is also unable to focus sufficiently.

Effective meditation is less a matter of extremes and more a matter of finding a healthy balance.  To meditate is to walk a tightrope over the abyss of our own thoughts, and to feed our tendency for self-indulgence or unhealthy self-denial is to lose the balance necessary for perfecting the tightrope walk of the mind.

"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 of the senses, revealed in the stilled 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 stilled in the Self.
Wherever 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."

Krishna teaches us that the cultivation of the ability to walk on the tightrope over the abyss of the mind leads to the freedom of being able to experience one's own eternal consciousness without the impediments of the worries and cravings that constantly intrude upon our attempts to find lasting joy.  A healthy asceticism, the balanced self-denial of one who does not indulge in excessive eating or drinking before a tightrope walk and also does not starve or dehydrate himself before the tightrope walk, is what will help us to find serenity within the landscapes of the mind's eye.

This balance allows us to walk the narrow path to union with the divine, to oneness with Brahman, the creative principle which underlies and suffuses all that exists, including our own consciousness.  This union with the divine is both a fuller participation in the divine life and a fuller realization of our own life.

"The infinite joy of touching Brahman is easily attained by those who are free from the burden of evil and established within themselves.  They see the Self in every creature and all creation in the Self.  With consciousness unified through meditation, they see everything with an equal eye.
I am ever present to those who have realized me in every creature.  Seeing all life as my manifestation, they are never separated from me.  They worship me in the hearts of all, and all their actions proceed from me.  Wherever they may live, they abide in me.
When a person responds to the sorrows and joys of others as if they were his own, he has attained the highest state of spiritual union."

Once we have begun to see the divine life in ourselves, we cannot help but see it in others, how it suffuses the whole world and brings it to the flowering of terrifying beauty.  And we cannot help but see how inextricably bound up our lives are with the lives of others, how their sorrows become our sorrows and their joys become our joys.

This is a lovely response to Arjuna's question, but he still has doubts after Krishna's exposition of the power of meditation.  Arjuna asks, "O Krishna, the stillness of divine union which you describe is beyond my comprehension.  How can the mind, which is so restless, attain lasting peace?  Krishna, the mind is restless, turbulent, powerful, violent; trying to control it is like trying to tame the wind."

Arjuna is very right here that the kind of meditation described by Krishna is extremely difficult to attain.  I know from experience that it takes great effort to gain the ability to find this kind of serenity for even a short while.  And Krishna acknowledges this:

"It is true that the mind is restless and difficult to control.  But it can be conquered, Arjuna, through regular practice and detachment.  Those who lack self-control will find it difficult to progress in meditation; but those who are self-controlled, striving earnestly through the right means, will attain the goal."

This, however, does not completely assuage Arjuna's doubts.  He asks another question: "Krishna, what happens to one who has faith but who lacks self-control and wanders from the path, not attaining success in yoga?  If he becomes deluded on the spiritual path, will he lose the support of both worlds, like a cloud scattered in the sky?  Krishna, you can dispel all doubts; remove this doubt which binds me."

Arjuna recognizes that faith alone will not carry him through, at least not faith in the divine as a mere belief held in a philosophical way.  He sees instinctively that there is a grave spiritual danger in belief without having the self-control to live out that belief in the radical way described by Krishna.

Krishna exhorts him to let the belief push him forward until it is possible to gain the necessary self-control, to grow in the capacity for meditation rather than giving up because perfection in meditation cannot be acquired quickly.

"Arjuna, my son, such a person will not be destroyed.  No one who does good work will ever come to a bad end, either here or in the world to come.
When such people die, they go to other realms where the righteous live.  They dwell there for countless years and then are reborn into a home which is pure and prosperous.  Or they may be born into a family where meditation is practiced; to be born into such a family is extremely rare.  The wisdom they have acquired in previous lives will be reawakened, Arjuna, and they will strive even harder for Self-realization.  Indeed, they will be driven on by the strength of their past disciplines.  Even one who inquires after the practice of meditation rises above those who simply perform rituals.
Through constant effort over many lifetimes, a person becomes purified of all selfish desires and attains the supreme goal of life.
Meditation is superior to severe asceticism and the path of knowledge.  It is also superior to selfless service.  May you attain the goal of meditation, Arjuna!  Even among those who meditate, that man or woman who worships me with perfect faith, completely absorbed in me, is the most firmly established in yoga."

Krishna goes on to reassure Arjuna that his efforts, even if they do not lead quickly to perfection, are indeed worthwhile.  Krishna does not want Arjuna to make his reaching perfection the enemy of reaching what is good and closer to perfection than where he was before.  Krishna does not ask us to make perfection a matter of our unhealthy attachment to immediate gratification.

To indulge in our desire for immediate gratification with regard to the spiritual life defeats the purpose of the spiritual life and leaves us trapped in the cycle of reliance on transient pleasures from which Krishna is trying to help liberate us.

Though perfection in meditation takes time and consistent effort, union with the divine and fullness of life for ourselves is worth it.  And as Krishna advised Arjuna, to lose all selfishness in true and sincere worship roots us deeply in precisely this union with the divine and fullness of life.

This is the meditation of Krishna, the immersion of our consciousness into the ocean of the divine life, the strength of our faith propelling us into the depths of oneness with all that lives, buoyed up by waves of divine energy so that we might not drown in oneness, instead living fully within and inseparably from the ultimate cause of our lives.

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

Note: The above is a depiction of Krishna dancing.


  1. Thanks for posting, Sam. It's been over 13 years since I've read the Gita, so saying "I'm a little rusty" would be an overstatement. However, from reading what you just read,there are several areas of overlap of the teaching of Krishna with Christian teachings in the New Testament. When Krishna says that those who have conquered themselves "are equally disposed to family, enemies, and friends, to those who support them and those who are hostile, to the good and the evil alike," it reminds me of Christ's teaching in the Sermon on the Mount to love our enemies and do good to them who hate us. Also, Krishna's teaching that "The supreme Reality stands revealed in the consciousness of those who have conquered themselves.  They live in peace, alike in cold and heat, pleasure and pain, praise and blame" reminds me of St. Paul, who said in Philippians 4 that he had learned to be content in whatsoever state he was in, whether want or plenty. Of course, there are significant differences, too; Paul had found his sufficiency in the person of Christ, whereas the Hindu teaching seems to be that one finds it through self-renunciation and conquering of the ego and realization of the  Ātman through meditation.

  2. I meant to say understatement, not overstatement. But I think you get my drift.