by Andi Poulson
Editor’s Note: On occasion, the Gadabout will feature writings from students enrolled in the Sattva Yoga 200 Hour Teacher Training. Oftentimes, we are impressed with the organizational structure, the rubric a particular text can create through multiple vantage points, and other ways that sharing these essays may be in service to others grappling with a text that at times is breathtaking in its poetic insights and equally flummoxing in its moral imperatives. Andi is a particularly thoughtful and talented writer and we hope you enjoy.
For me, it was beneficial to start reading the Yoga Sutras and reviewing the handout that summarized them before I started the Bhagavad Gita, because then I was better prepared to understand some of the philosophy laid out in the discussion between Krishna and Arjuna. The story laid out through their conversation was more of a practical application of how one can interpret yogic philosophy in regards to his/her life and the lives of others. It showed me how one who is less enlightened might interpret a certain action or behavior one way, while another with more wisdom might interpret it a different way by seeing the full truth and “big picture.”
Krishna in all of his omniscient glory could view of the situation and knew that this battle was just a very small piece of an eternal and complex timeline, whereas Arjuna could only see things from the viewpoint of what is considered to be right/just for himself in this very moment.
The first chapter lays out the situation and introduces us to Arjuna’s dilemma of whether he should go to battle against his friends and family. He feels like it would be morally wrong to kill them and also feels like it would cause damage to the peace and prosperity of the family unit. In verses 40-44 he says that he was taught that if the family is overcome by lawlessness, all modes of proper behavior are lost, women in the family are corrupted, many begin to marry outside of their caste, and those who cause this to happen will be damned to hell. I found this statement to be the most shocking at first out of the entire book since I couldn’t figure out how any of this would have to do with corrupting women and why it would even matter if they chose to marry outside of their caste. As I read through the rest of the book, I came to understand their view on the caste system a bit more, and tried to look at it through their point of view rather than my modern/Western one.
I suppose if you believe in karmic cycles and believe that you need to experience all levels of life and all types of suffering and pleasure before becoming perfected, you could argue that one who is at the lowest caste now could eventually be born into the highest caste in a future lifetime.
You could also argue that the caste system paves the way for people to follow their exact prescribed dharma and perfect themselves in whatever duty was assigned to their specific caste. Overall, the first chapter does a good job of setting up the scene, showing us where Arjuna is coming from, and explains why he feels such grief at the thought of participating in this great battle.
In Chapter 2:11-13, Krishna explains that if you can believe in the cycle of karma, you can understand that the death of a warrior in battle only applies to his physical body, and he will have the opportunity to be reborn again and again. I liked the way he chose to illustrate this idea in verse 22, “Someone who has abandoned worn out garments sets out to clothe himself in brand new raiment; just so , when it has cast off worn-out bodies, the embodied one will encounter others.” Krishna encourages Arjuna not to see things as killer vs victim but rather to simply follow his dharma by completing a necessary and non-desire driven action. Verse 31 indicates that he should not be afraid to follow his duty as a warrior since he would be engaging in a righteous battle, and verse 33 further drives this home by saying that turning away from righteous battle would actually be evil since Arjuna would have abandoned both duty and his honored name. I recently listened to a keynote speech on yoga by Richard Miller, and he mentioned working with the military in regards to yoga, philosophy, and war.
He said those soldiers who just knew it was right for them and part of their dharma had no problem going into battle, but often those who felt conflicted would leave the military altogether and probably should leave since they would not be following their dharma or be successful in battle.
He ends this part of his argument by telling Arjuna that his concern should be with action only, not the results of the action, and he should also avoid attachment to non-action.
In chapter 3, Arjuna seems confused by the idea that it seems like intellect and discrimination are now being considered inferior to action, so he asks Krishna which one is right. Krishna then takes the opportunity to explain the difference between the discipline of knowledge (jnana yoga) and the discipline of action (karma/kriya yoga). He explains that following a path of service through action and seeking higher levels of spiritual growth will naturally cause a higher wisdom, and that avoiding action will not help wisdom to grow. I found it interesting that Krishna states in verses 22-24 that he isn’t required to do anything as the creator of everything, yet he has to be in action to set an example for those he created; if he is idle, everything in the universe will fall apart (Ch 3, stanzas 22-24). To me this was very similar to the idea that Christ was not required to die on the cross but felt that he must in order to set an example and atone for the sins of the world.
Chapter 5 and 6 cover Arjuna’s question regarding selfless action versus renunciation, and Krishna lays out the methods and guidelines for proper meditation. He continues to emphasize the idea of living a life in perfect balance, avoiding extremes and attachment. In Chapter 5:18 he states that, “The wise ones see the very same in a learned, cultured Brahmin, a cow, an elephant, a dog – or in a dog-cooking outcaste!” and also in verse 20, “One should not thrill at what delights, nor shudder at what one abhors; who knows the absolute, abides in it – steady, undeluded.” Chapter 6:11-14 gives a specific instruction for the act of meditation, advising that one should find a steady seat in a pure place, sit with the mind focused on one object, keep the head, neck, and body aligned, and focus the gaze on the tip of the nose, avoiding distraction. I liked the example given in 6:19 of being “like a lamp in a windless place, unflickering.” I also found peace in verse 40, where Krishna states that “Neither down here nor hereafter will he be found to be destroyed, O Son of Pritha; for no one who does good comes to a bad end.”
Chapters 7 covers the eight elements of nature/prakriti (earth, water, fire, wind, ether, mind, intellect, and ego) and Krishna states that above all of those exists a higher eternal nature that creates and destroys all. He also introduces us to the gunas in verses 12-13, “And know that states of being which are pure, passionate, or dark, proceed from me – however, I am not in them: they are in me!” In Chapter 8 Arjuna asks for more information about action, Brahman, the self, creation, and knowing God. In verse 3, Krishna says, “Known as the essence of the Self, undying Brahman is supreme. The power by which all creatures come to exist is action.” He also goes on to explain that the perfected yogi who masters meditation, non-attachment, and selfless action will end the karmic cycle for himself and be reunited with Krishna, while those who simply follow a chaste ascetic’s life full of things like scripture study, giving offerings, and following rituals will need to continue the cycle of rebirth as they have not reached the highest level of Self-Realization.
In Chapter 9 Krishna lists out all of the ways that he is everything in nature, all knowing, creator of all, being and non-being, and that that those who meditate on and worship him will return to him. Verse 9 states that, “Those men who single-mindedly worship me without wavering, the steadfast ones, I satisfy their needs and what is theirs, protect.” He expounds on this in Chapter 10, explaining in verses 10-39 all of the many different ways he can be found, and also lists out many of his endless divine manifestations. Up until this point, he has appeared to Arjuna as a man, in human form, but in Chapter 11 he chooses to reveal his supreme godly form, in all of its universal majestic glory in order to give Arjuna further proof of his power, the philosophy he is teaching, and the need for Arjuna to comply. This overwhelms and terrifies Arjuna, and he apologizes for treating Krishna (in his human form) with casual friendship and as more of an equal than a holy being. He begs for mercy and although he feels extreme gratitude for being shown something no other man has ever seen, he wants Krishna to revert back to his human form. I thought this was interesting based on the part of the Sutras that advises those who encounter celestial beings to treat them with non-attachment and avoid amazement or fear (III:52). I don’t believe Krishna was trying to tempt Arjuna, nor was he at the peak of his yogic path, but it still was something to think about. Chapter 12:12-20 gave me more insight on the ways of the true yogi, with descriptions such as, “Value knowledge over practice, meditation over knowledge, highest is renunciation, whence comes, immediately, peace,” and “Who does not hate any being, is friendly and compassionate, without possessiveness and ego, the same in grief and joy, enduring,” and “One from whom the world does not shrink, one who does not shrink from the world, freed from distress, from impatience, from fear and joy, is dear to me.”
Chapter 13 deals with a discussion on prakriti, Purusha, gunas, the difference between body (field) and soul when Arjuna asks, “…I would know of nature and of the spirit, of the field and its knower, of knowledge and of its subject.” Krishna explains that the body contains the senses, sense & action organs, mind, and ego, and is subject to desire, pain, emotion, pleasure, aversion, and in order to separate oneself from those things, you have to find the soul/self and know that it is a separate entity from the body. Verse 23 states, “One who therefore knows both spirit and matter with its qualities, existing in whatever way, will not be subject to rebirth.” He also goes over the gunas in more depth in chapter 14 and explains how they relate to qualities found in people. 14:18 tells us that those who are pure (sattvic) ascend to higher levels while those who are passionate (rajasic) stay in the middle, and those who are dark (tamasic) go below. Being on the sattvic path allows for light, wisdom, and peace, while being on a rajasic path can lead to anger, intense emotions and attachment. The tamasic path is one of laziness, ignorance, and possibly dark or cruel behavior. In order to reach the highest level on the spiritual path, one much rise above and have non-attachment to all of these qualities, as described in 14:23, “One seated as if indifferent, undisturbed by the qualities, who thinks, ‘The qualities exist,’ and stands firm and unwavering.” Chapter 15 discusses the idea of the eternal and universal Self, and Krishna says in 15:15,
“And into everyone’s heart I am entered; from me come memory, knowledge, and reason; I am the only subject of the Vedas, Vedanta’s maker, knower of the Veda.” He takes this further in 15:18 by saying, “Being beyond the perishable and higher than imperishable, in this world and in the Vedas I am called the Supreme Person.”
Chapter 16 lists out more qualities that Arjuna is encouraged to cultivate and gives specific ones to avoid. 16:1-3 lists the positive qualities such as non-violence, fearlessness, modesty, and absence of malice, and 16:4, 9-12 goes over the negative qualities and what happens to those who possess these qualities. Verse 12 states, “Bound by a hundred snares of hope, devoted to lusts and anger, unjustly they seek piles of wealth to gratify their desires,” and in verse 20 Krishna says, “Not gaining me, the deluded having entered wombs of demons, descend there from birth after birth, to the lowest place, Arjuna.” Chapter 17 takes the gunas even further by describing their preferences for food, the ways that they offer actions/sacrifice, and the way that they worship. 17:11-13 describes the three types of sacrifice; that which is done in purity without attachment, that which is done in a showy manner and expecting a result, and that which is done without thought, offering, or without faith. Chapter 18:5-6 clarifies this a bit, by saying “Sacrifice, gifts, austerities should be performed, not abandoned; sacrifice, donations, hardships are purifiers of the wise. These actions though, should be performed without attachment to their fruits. O Son of Pritha, this is my supreme conviction, without doubt.”
Chapter 18 also signifies the end of Krishna’s discourse to Arjuna, and he reminds him again of his duty as a member of the warrior class. Verse 43 states, “Valor, majesty, firmness, skill, bravery, generosity, and lordliness are attributes innate to the warrior class,” and also repeats the same idea from earlier in 47 by stating that “Better one’s own duty ill-done, than someone else’s well performed; no one is faulted for performing acts ordained by one’s own nature.” Krishna ends with verses 70-72 by saying that those who study, recite, and follows the sacred discourse that he has just had with Arjuna and listen to it with respect, faith and purity of mind will be on the path to liberation. He asks Arjuna one last time if it has finally sunk in and if Arjuna is ready to make up his mind, and the response given in verse 73 makes it clear that he will proceed, “Delusion lost and wisdom gained by your grace, O Unchanging One; I stand here with all doubt dispelled, and I will do as you command!”