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

Monday, January 9, 2017

Bhagavad Gita: The Wisdom of Krishna

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

Previously, in The Yoga of Krishna, I examined what Krishna taught Arjuna about the nature of yoga in some depth.  Immediately after the teachings on yoga referenced previously, Krishna goes on to teach Arjuna about the nature of wisdom.

What we generally think of as wisdom in the West is not the wisdom 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 whether he ought to fight the battle before him or abandon it, Arjuna asks another question: "Tell me of those who live established in wisdom, ever aware of the Self, O Krishna.  How do they talk?  How sit?  How move about?"

As before, Krishna gives an answer which has real depth and meaning; this is not the dismissive answer of a parent who just wants his child to get on with doing what was asked.  This is the answer of a parent who truly wishes to teach his child wisdom for living well, who truly wants his child to flourish.

"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."

The word translated as Self here is Ātman, the eternally enduring consciousness Krishna described previously.  The wisdom of the Self is a wisdom of an eternal perspective, not the wisdom of one who frantically scrambles to escape immediate death.  The wisdom Krishna refers to here is the the wisdom that comes from detachment from the sensual comforts of this world.

Krishna's description of those who are bound by their attachments to the simple stimulus-response game of seeking pleasure and avoiding pain sounds eerily like he's describing someone who is addicted to painkillers, or methamphetamines, or even marijuana or alcohol.  He's describing those of us who are still attached to the comforts of this world as addicts who are stuck in a cycle of seeking transient pleasures, blissfully unaware of our downward spiral because we only allow ourselves to focus on the next temporary high.

"The disunited mind is far from wise; how can it meditate?  How be at peace?  When you know no peace, how can you know joy?  When you let your mind follow the call of the senses, they carry away your better judgment as storms drive a boat off its charted course on the sea.
Use all your power to free the senses from attachment and aversion alike, and live in the full wisdom of the Self.  Such a sage awakes to light in the night of all creatures.  That which the world calls day is the night of ignorance to the wise.
As rivers flow into the ocean but cannot make the vast ocean overflow, so flow the streams of the sense-world into the sea of peace that is the sage.  But this is not so with the desirer of desires.
They are forever free who renounce all selfish desires and break away from the ego-cage of 'I,' 'me,' and 'mine' to be united with the Lord.  This is the supreme state.  Attain to this, and pass from death to immortality."

The danger of the mind which is not integrated and unable to be focused in its attention is that its disunity frustrates our capacity to truly enjoy the many good things in life.  Instead, we leap toward whatever pleases us superficially and away from whatever displeases us without regard to whether these are rational choices.  Krishna invites into the process of uniting our mind around the singular purpose of union with the divine life he embodies, asking us to re-order our lives by putting this transcendent purpose first and letting everything else fall into place.

Arjuna pushes back against all this mystical-sounding advice by asking Krishna an additional question: "O Krishna, you have said that knowledge is greater than action; why then do you ask me to wage this terrible war?  Your advice seems inconsistent.  Give me one path to follow to the supreme good."

We are probably inclined to sympathize with Arjuna's question here.  We might wonder how the path of wisdom Krishna just described is coherent with his admonition to Arjuna to carry out his duty as a warrior by killing other great warriors he respects immensely.  However, Krishna rejects Arjuna's false dilemma and explains that the path of wisdom and the path of following one's duties even against one's inclinations are the same path, that they are not the separate paths we imagine them to be.

"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."

There have been two paths in many religions, and these are generally the more active life and the more contemplative life.  This is just as true of Christianity and Islam as it is of Buddhism and Hinduism.  Fortunately, these paths which appear to be quite different lead to the same destination when walked with sincerity.

Both the contemplative and active life contain elements of the other, as Krishna points out in the next passage.  Both of these lifestyles, rightly focused on the purpose of union of the divine life, re-shape our lives because they are selfless.  These paths are both the path of rejecting the life of selfishness in favor of eternal union, a re-orienting of life toward what is transcendent, the life that is above and beyond our pursuit of transient pleasures and aversion to temporary pains.

"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 any 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.
Honor and cherish the devas as they honor and cherish you; through this honor and love you will attain the supreme good.  All human desires are fulfilled by the devas, who are pleased by selfless service.  But anyone who enjoys the things given by the devas without offering selfless acts in return is a thief.
The spiritually minded, who eat in the spirit of service, are freed from all their sins; but the selfish, who prepare food for their own satisfaction, eat sin.  Living creatures are nourished by food, and food is nourished by rain; rain itself is the water of life, which comes down from selfless worship and service."

Krishna teaches us here that humanity was created with a general telos to act, and specifically to act selflessly.  And not just that we have this inborn purpose, but also that this selfless service for the good of others is what connects us ever more profoundly with the divine life.  He explains that what nourishes life itself in this world is the result of selfless worship and service, and that we should want to reciprocate that divine selfless giving which is the ultimate cause of all that we enjoy in this world.

He also teaches us that even perfectly natural actions which are not inherently moral or immoral (such as eating) are imbued with a moral dimension because of the intentions we bring to them.  The problem with eating for pleasure isn't that we're eating, but rather that we are doing so selfishly rather than because it keeps us strong enough to give selflessly of ourselves to serve the genuine good of others.

"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.  Do your work with the welfare of others always in mind.  It was by such work that Janaka attained perfection; others too have followed his path."

What's more, Krishna teaches us that our capacity for selfless action is grounded in the very divine life which created us, the ultimate reality known as Brahman, the immutable cause of all that is.  We are most truly our Self when we participate in the selfless action which is a reflection of the selfless, creative, and life-giving action of Brahman.

He points out that we are happiest when we are not devoted to seeking our own immediate pleasure and avoiding our own immediate pain, when we are not bound by the chains which we wrap lovingly around the ego as a result of our addictions, chains that inevitably result from even those addictions to things which are not inherently bad for us, but enslave us nonetheless because we still perform them selfishly.

"What the outstanding person does, others will try to do.  The standards such people create will be followed by the whole world.  There is nothing in the three worlds for me to gain, Arjuna, nor is there anything I do not have; I continue to act, but I am not driven by any need of my own.  If I ever refrained from continuous work, everyone would immediately follow my example.  If I stopped working I would be the cause of cosmic chaos, and finally of the destruction of this world and these people.
The ignorant work for their own profit, Arjuna; the wise work for the welfare of the world, without thought for themselves.  By abstaining from work you will confuse the ignorant, who are engrossed in their actions.  Perform all work carefully, guided by compassion."

In his wisdom, Krishna understands that it is our human instinct to follow those who are behaving in an excellent way when we are exposed to their actions.  It is by observing the actions of the wise that we learn how to live as they do, selflessly giving both the fruits of their actions and the fruits of their contemplation for the welfare of all.

Arjuna's problem isn't that he isn't conscientious enough, but rather that his reluctance to follow his dharma is rooted in selfish reasons rather than selfless ones.  Krishna offers himself as a model to Arjuna, inviting him to selflessly work according to his nature as a warrior just as Krishna selflessly works according to his nature as the avatar of the divine sustainer of all things (Vishnu).

The wisdom of Krishna teaches us that the more we seek to grow to be like those who are most wise, both the human and divine sages, the more we become wise ourselves.  Krishna shows us that wisdom is not merely a matter of knowledge.  The greatest wisdom is not gained through the study of esoteric ideas and ancient texts, but rather through cultivating a relationship with the wise here in this world who point us to the divine wisdom so that we can encounter it more fully in the next world.

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

Note: The above is a depiction of Krishna dancing.

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