Purusha and Prakriti

In Indian philosophy, there are two principles that constitute all of reality. They are known as purusha and prakriti. Purusha is consciousness, the mind, the observer. It is the divine masculine, symbolized by the god or deva known as Shiva. This principle is passive: its goal is only to reflect eternally on the feminine principle, prakriti. Prakriti is the active principle, which is nature itself, God made manifest in trees, people, computers, and galaxies. This divine feminine is symbolized by the goddess in all of her forms: Parvati, Lakshmi, Saraswati, and so forth. But, in some schools of Indian philosophy, and I am thinking of the Samkhya school, there is a primordial Prakriti, the divine “stuff” out of which worlds are made. I use scare quotes around “stuff,” because the primordial Prakriti is neither material nor immaterial: it has the potential to take form. It holds within it the possibility for all causality, for all of the possibles, including the one that we currently inhabit. For some reason unknown to us, this primordial divinity chose to take form, to become nature as it is made manifest to us. And, to add even more mystery, this primordial divinity chose to become subject to law, to cause and effect.

Shiva with his wife Parvati on traditional Hindu temple, Nuwara Eliya, Sri lanka (Deposit Photos)

We wake up every morning, and, because of gravity, down is still down and up is still up. Not that we understand gravity, because we don’t—not even remotely. There are still many Nobel prizes to be awarded on that front. Somehow giving this force a name—gravity—and having Newton’s laws makes it seem like we understand it. Let’s just flag the mystery here and say that human beings don’t have it all figured out. We need a million more Albert Einsteins and Marie Curies, and then we will still have more to learn. Anyway, we have this sense of continuity, that things will continue to be the way that they have been. Part of this is just a bias towards familiarity, but part of it is also because the universe acts in ways that are continuous with what went before. Nature takes patterns, and we can observe these patterns and make sense of them. We can imagine a completely chaotic universe, but it does not square with our experience in the world.

Let’s go back to prakriti. This divine feminine, this god(dess)-stuff, underlies all of existence. It has taken form as us. We are all part of it. Now, before we get too carried away, we should also know that it pervades trees and grass and landfills. Prakriti has, as it were, delegated some of its powers to us. It (or she) has given us a share in this dance of creation, preservation, and dissolution. Everything comes from Her, and everything returns to Her, but we have this wonderful ability to be able to see and understand as it all happens. We also have the observant nature, which comes to us from the Shiva side of divinity. These two principles are completely reciprocal, always dependent upon one another, always playing this game of hide-and-go-seek with each other. And we are part of the game. We are not being used as chess pieces, because we have actual freedom to do and think as we like.

Because everything arises from prakriti and prakriti remains beneath the appearances, each one of our actions is imbued with divine potential. While the divine substratum has evolved into material form, such that we have the illusion of a separate ego and congress with the elements, the prakriti is not fully effaced or spent. This means that all of our actions take place within prakriti or the divine nature of all reality. Our freedom gains purchase through this divine medium, and nothing that takes place within the mind or in the world fails to leave an impress on this spiritual substance. At the same time, the ripples that we send into the spiritual substance through our actions reverberate through the entire universe, expressing general tendencies that come into fruition, sometimes locally and sometimes at a distance. Many types of activities fall under the general heading of action: feeling, thinking, doing, and willing. All of these activities make an impress upon prakriti, which carries them forward in seen and unseen ways.

On the gross, material level, the “butterfly effect” sends ripples outward, so that the tiniest action impacts thousands of other entities. This effect is less like a chain of causation and more like a web of causation, as each node on the web may be connected to several others. A multiplier effect quickly begins, so that, with each iteration, the initial impress spreads rapidly outward. On a more subtle level, valences of emotion and thought also have collective effects, as in the mob mentality, or, more positively, team spirit. Even beyond the subtle layer, I maintain that even when a thought or intention is not willingly shared with others, it still leaves a nonzero impress on the cosmos. Learning to control and direct our co-creative powers leads to mastery, either in some limited domain or in the entirety of life. If we can learn to use our divinely ordained powers for good, we will have tremendous powers of self-expression and world transformation.

All this time I have said much about the prakriti aspect of the divine nature and little about the purusha aspect of the divine nature. The purusha is the witness, the observer, consciousness itself. It is the passive aspect of the self, bare awareness. We exhaust ourselves through action when the purusha aspect is insufficiently developed. The purusha aspect enables action without attachment, so that I do not become emotionally invested in the results of my action. I am able to stand back and let the effects of my actions accrue without regard to getting this or that specific reward for my actions. I set things into motion, or, better, I allow things to occur through me, without inordinate desire or perturbation. The purusha nature allows for patience, stability, and contentment even in the delay or deferral of the intended result. Much of what we do in meditation is cultivate the purusha nature, so that we do not become exhausted through attachment.

With these two divine principles at work, we can bring things from thought into reality in the world of work. The more we use and understand these two principles, the greater our capacity for transformation of self and world. We must keep in mind at all times that we do not do things on our own but only through the divine agency that flows through us. Nature speaks through our words and works through our hands. Even while working, we do nothing, but purusha-prakriti accomplishes all. We may speak casually about having done this or that as long as we remember that we are instruments for this process that goes beyond ourselves in depth and extent.

A Goddess-Based Path to a Sustainable Future

My talk from the Parliament of the World Religions, “Sanatana Dharma and Earth Liberation: A Goddess-Based Path to a Sustainable Future,” is now available in article format at Sutra Journal.  The article is an ecological reading of the Ramayana epic, meant to serve as a guide in this age of corporate globalization, climate change, and mass extinction.  I see it as an authentically Hindu (note that I do not mean the only authentically Hindu) response to the environmental challenges of the twenty-first century.  Some learned pandits who are very familiar with Ramayana were present at the Parliament and said that they found my reading refreshing but also faithful to the text.  That makes me feel good as a convert to this tradition keenly aware of the dangers of appropriation.

I would also like to encourage everyone to support Sutra Journal, which is mostly a labor of love as far as I can tell.  There is so much garbage on the internet these days, and it is nice to have a site filled with informative articles that actually matter, both intellectually and spiritually.  If you take a look at one of the issues, you’ll see that it’s a very ambitious project.  So please support the journal so that it sticks around and does not fade into the ether.  We need more voices for the inner traditions, the religious aspects of yogic practice that are missing from so many of the health and fitness publications.

Bhagavad Gita Wisdom: Chapter Eighteen Commentary

Sanskrit verse from Bhagavad Gita

niyatasya tu saṁnyāsaḥ karmaṇo no’papdyate

mohāt tasya parityāgas tāmasaḥ parikīrtitaḥ

Giving up one’s duty is not proper.  The abandonment of obligatory work is due to delusion and is declared to be in the mode of ignorance (18.07 Trans. Prasad).

Chapter eighteen is a reflection on the proper role of work in life.  It is not uncommon for beginning spiritual aspirants to abandon regular work in the thought that more time devoted to devotional activity will produce quick results.  Such individuals do, indeed, quickly attain lofty spiritual states.  They may have visions of divinity and experience various occult powers.  Unfortunately, these quick realizations will not last, since the earnest seeker has not yet incorporated spirituality into the whole of life.  His or her work and relationships will suffer from a lack of attention, and crises will begin to develop, which will eventually result in abandonment of devotion.  The seeker who abandons work will end up more or less like a drug addict, looking for a “quick fix” of God-realization but not thinking about the consequences.

In order to reach stabilization in the spiritual life, in order to practice long-term, one must attend to all of the responsibilities of life while also undertaking spiritual practices.  The chapter discusses two paths, that of the sannyasin and the tyagi The sannyasin takes formal religious vows and devotes his or her whole life to spiritual practices.  This would seem to be the obvious way to eliminate the conflict between worldly and spiritual existence.  We should note, however, that even sannyasins must work, whether that work is begging for food, running a religious institution, teaching lay devotees, or simply practicing austerities.  By no means does the sannyasin escape the life of action.  Great perils also come with this life, as the sannyasin must avoid the temptations to pride that come along with wearing the cloth.  The same law that applies to the lay devotee also applies to the sannyasin, in that he or she must work without regard for the fruit in order to obtain liberation.

The second path mentioned in chapter eighteen is that of the tyagi.  The tyagi continues to work in the world but performs all action as worship, renouncing the fruit of action.  The tyagi is a sort of “secret sannyasin” and renounces the world in his or her heart.  The tyagi has abandoned likes and dislikes and performs all work out of a sense of duty alone.  The tyagi also faces great spiritual danger, chiefly the danger of living among worldly people and the possible temptation to abandon the disciplined life.  The inner renunciation provides protection to the devotee living in the world, as the tyagi no longer cares about the status symbols and accolades that entrap so many people.  The tyagi stands outside the law of karma, since, by the action of worship he or she cancels out the past sinful actions.  The path of the tyagi is very efficient and guides the sincere devotee down the path of liberation.  The tyagi works, all the while saying “Hari, Hari” in his or her heart.

The Gita recommends that we avoid both overwork (stemming from a rajasic constitution) and underwork (stemming from a tamasic constitution).  The sannyasin and the tyagi alike must work with great energy and enthusiasm, cheerfully and without regard for the result, offering up every action as worship.   In this way, confused and wavering consciousness can be replaced with a single-mindedness that conquers all anxiety.  This chapter in the Gita reveals a course of action that allows for continued engagement in the world while simultaneously seeking God, welcome advice for the spiritual seeker facing many responsibilities.

Secular society often views religion as a crutch for broken, neurotic people, a coping mechanism for those who simply can’t hack it in the competitive world.  Indian philosophy, beginning with the Vedas and continuing through the Upanishads and epic poems, regards religious practice as the crowning touch on an already good life.  Spiritual practice is not a prop for a broken life: it is rather the rays of glory streaming through a fully functioning life.  The renunciate does not practice because she cannot do anything else well: the renunciate fully engages with the world and has become hyper-responsible, to God and gods, to guru and lineage, to family and work.  Such a person comes alive as a result of renunciation.  Such a person becomes unstoppable through no longer caring about rewards and recompense, or, conversely, about punishments and condemnation.  Such a person rises above the crowd and becomes a refuge for others, transcending even time and death.

This applies to both sannyāsins and tyāgīs.  The householder disciple, Mahendranath Gupta, known simply as ‘M,’ recorded the masterwork, Ramakrishna Kathamrita (The Gospel of Ramakrishna), the great work of Bengali devotional literature.  Ramakrishna himself remained married, even though he took on many of the aspects associated with monastic life.  Without ‘M,’ we would not know the teachings of Ramakrishna, and without Ramakrishna, ‘M’ would not have been inspired to write.  Many great saints, like Sant Tukaram of Maharashtra, the great bhakti poet,  were married and did not take monastic vows.   This is to say that the sannyāsin path and the tyāgi or grihastha path converge at a point beyond ordinary experience, and both have their part to play in living the dharma.  Although sannyāsins are generally called renunciates, these are really two different types of renunciation, centering around the core idea of detachment from the fruits of action.  Chapter eighteen returns to this central theme of the Bhagavad Gita, as one more reminder to act according to duty without regard for the fruit.

Bhagavad Gita Wisdom: Chapter Seventeen Commentary

Sanskrit verse from Bhagavad Gita

aśraddhayā hutaṁ dattaṁ tapas taptaṁ kṛtaṁ cay at

asad ity ucyate pārtha na ca tat pretya no iha

Whatever is done without faith—whether it is sacrifice, charity, austerity, or any other act—is useless.  It has no value here or hereafter, O Arjuna (17.28 Trans. Prasad).   

The seventeenth chapter continues the discussion of the three gunas from the previous chapter, exploring each in greater detail, but always with the understanding that all forms of worship must be done with faith if they are to be effective.  The explanation of the gunas must take into account that God alone is the doer, and that the human devotee and the human mind channel this greater power.  Without faith, the ritualistic actions amount to nonsense, for the mantras and the practices associated with them will not reach the intended valence of cosmic energy.  That said, we can identify tendencies associated with each of the gunas.  As with the last chapter, we should avoid using the Gita to criticize others and apply these descriptions only to increase our understanding of where we are on the journey to liberation and what still needs to be done in order to make progress.  This chapter can help us to see our predominant tendencies and make necessary adjustments to nudge our habits towards greater sattva (The charts below follow Prasad’s translation except where the Sanskrit terms have been retained).

gita 17 triguna

The sattvic person worships the devas, the guru, and the twice-born according to the instructions laid down in the scriptures, expecting nothing in return, while taking pure vegetarian food.  Sattvic food excludes meat, eggs, onions, and strong spices.  The food should be flavorful but not burning.  The rajasic person worships yakshas (earth spirits, spirits of wealth) and rakshasas (demonic beings) with the intent of gaining riches, fame, or some other reward.  The rajasic person takes luxurious foods and has a tendency to live beyond his or her means.  The rajasic person craves very strong flavors but may still keep to a vegetarian diet.  Moving down the ladder to the third rung, the tamasic person worships bhutas and pretas, the ghosts trapped between worlds as a result of past karma.  The tamasic person cares only about filling his or her belly, eating meat and even spoiled food.  The tamasic person does not care about flavor and eats mostly for quantity.  Note that a person can be of one guna with respect to eating and another guna with respect for worship.  We can imagine that someone may worship the gods but stick to meat eating.  Other combinations are also possible, but, over time, the prevailing guna will triumph.

gita 17 mode of austerity

When it comes to the attitude or motivation for worship, the sattvic person worships with faith, believing that the objective for meditation will be achieved without knowing the how or when.  The devotee should fix his or her belief on the objective for the puja or homa based on the dhyanam of the particular sadhana.  The devotee may desire to draw near to this or that deity, but he or she should not expect to receive siddhi or bhoga and certainly not on any timetable conceived in the mind of the devotee.  He or she may desire moksha, but with the understanding that this takes time according to the past karma of that individual.  A primary cause of falling away from the spiritual life is that the devotee expects too much, too soon. By renouncing expectation, the sadhana can unfold peacefully at the pace required for that individual.  The rajasic devotee likely seeks wealth or supernatural ability more than liberation but will be concerned with appearing to have a strongly spiritual nature.  It is pretty common for spiritual seekers to have an experience of bliss but to then fall away with the realization of the amount of work involved.  The rajasic person may make excursions into sattvic meditation but is unable to remain in that mode for very long.  The tamasic person performs austerity out of a low sense of self or low regard for others.  The objective is to punish the body rather than lose identification with it, and such an individual remains in the ego nature.  He or she easily becomes angered with others and may practice black magic and various kinds of adharmic behavior.

gita 17 thought word deed

The text then turns to the austerity of thought, word, and deed, and here the dividing line between sattva and rajas becomes more clear.  Anyone may put on a show of spirituality, but only the truly dedicated person can transcend feelings of resentment and anger.  The truly sattvic person does not see the flaws in others and looks upon all experiences, good or bad, as opportunities to practice detachment and kindness.  The truly sattvic person governs his or her speech, saying only those things that will be beneficial and will not be harsh in nature.  The sattvic person avoids half-truths and lies, telling the whole truth so long as it will not hurt anyone.  The sattvic person practices non-harming in all aspects of life and is actively engaged in the service of others.  Whoever practices this three-fold austerity will burn negative karmas very quickly, traveling the royal road to liberation.

gita 17 mode of charity

Giving to others can be a way of reaching liberation, but it can also create attachments if done in the wrong manner.  The sattvic person gives according to the five debts, as discussed in the previous chapter.  He or she does not give indiscriminately but searches into the recipient to see if that person has good intentions for the gift.  Giving to temples, priests, twice-born, and guru will be especially important, but not when the giving is done to increase stature in the community.  In that case, the gift becomes rajasic in nature and keeps the giver bound to the material world.  The rajasic person wants to be seen as a giving person and accordingly will not give without an audience.  The tamasic person does not have the wherewithal to give for strategic reasons and gives according to impulse, to similar individuals who reinforce destructive tendencies.  The tamasic person must learn to give strategically, while the rajasic person must learn to let go of rewards and focus on duty.

The seventeenth chapter becomes a kind of introspection by which the devotee comes to know which gunas dominate his or her disposition. A template for transformation begins to form in the devotee’s mind for which areas need the most work, and concrete steps for action begin to emerge.  Some people may need to give up eating meat, others may need to watch out for harsh speech, and still others may have trouble with detachment.  Individuals at all stages must press onward with great faith, believing that the gods and liberation are quite real, more real than the passing rewards of the senses.  Shri Krishna has provided here a road map for liberation, a clear series of stages by which the seeker can attain to the sattvic state.  But even the sattvic state is just a way station along the way, and it must be maintained diligently in order for liberation to happen.  The devotee seeks to become worthy of liberation, but it happens when it happens.

Bhagavad Gita Wisdom: Chapter Sixteen Commentary

Sanskrit verse from Bhagavad Gita

yaḥ śāstravidhim utsṛjya vartate kāmakārataḥ

na sa siddhim avāpnoti na sukhaṁ na parāṁ gatim

One who acts under the influence of desires, disobeying scriptural injunctions, neither attains perfection nor happiness, nor the Supreme Abode (16.23 Trans. Prasad).

The sixteenth chapter of the Bhagavad Gita cuts like a blade for the ego forged in the fires of late industrial capitalism.  After all, we have been schooled in the delusion that “greed is good,” the mantra of the Reagan-Thatcher era, and in the belief that our desires are somehow sacrosanct.  Believe and achieve, Think and Grow Rich, and so many other destructive clichés come to us from childhood, so we do not question the prevailing assumption that the point in life is to actualize our desires.  Oftentimes, the goal of Self-realization can become confused with the mere actualization of desire.  This is due to the commercialization of yoga and Indian philosophy more generally: the timeless traditions of dharmic belief have become little more than wallpaper for various sales techniques.

We can scarcely conceive what it might be like to act without the influence of desires, so alienated are we from the sublime philosophy that Shri Krishna propounds.  The purpose of work is to get paid. The purpose of love is pleasure.  The purpose of art is commerce.  This line of thinking eliminates any intrinsic reward in the everyday aspects of life.  We can never do anything for its own sake: we must always be looking to gain something else when we pursue an interest, a relationship, a hobby.  The reward, too, must be calculated in advance: for this reason, we struggle to achieve anything of enduring significance.  Our time cycles have become very short as we become more and more accustomed to instant gratification.

It is easy to criticize social media or global capitalism or another bogeyman for this desire-oriented outlook on life.  It is much harder to understand the dynamic and move beyond it.  It will do little good to sermonize on the evils of capitalism and globalization if we cannot tame the beast of desire in our own hearts.  First, think about how miserable it can be to live our lives always one step behind the eight ball, so to speak.  The mentality of desire gratification lives in the mode of future-directedness: I am always looking for the next fix, the next acquisition, the next score.  I must get to the next level in the game.  I must get a burger and fries.  I must reach x number of followers on social media.  This treadmill effect never ends, and the first step is to just notice that it will not wind down of its own accord.

Potato chips

Think about eating a bag of potato chips (crisps).  This food has little nutritional value, and it does not fill your stomach in a normal way.  So you eat a few chips, they taste salty and delicious, and it is hard to stop eating them.  If you just listen to sense gratification, you will not stop until the bag is gone.  But if you can start talking to yourself, you can begin to release the desire to eat the whole bag. You might say, “you’re not going to feel any better after five more chips, so you might as well stop now.”  Or you might think about how sluggish you will feel afterward or the healthy dinner that you will have later.  The desiring impulse can be overcome: it just takes a lot of work and persistence.

Consumer culture has a lot of junk food, a lot of junk thought, a lot of junk news, and a lot of junk entertainment.  This crap content works by just catching our attention for a few seconds or minutes at a time.  This would not be a problem if we were not barraged by crap content twenty four hours a day, seven days a week.  The trouble is that our lives are made out of time, and we can easily squander time by succumbing to the quick fix.  And the quick fix always wears off. The more we cave to the desire for the quick fix, the less satisfying it is.  The diminishing returns kick in pretty quickly: the next potato chip will not be as good as the last.

So rather than being motivated by desire, we might think more about our duties.  This is really the point behind the whole Bhagavad Gita, that we must act in accordance with duty without regard for the fruit of our actions.  Only the Western notion of duty has been warped by the notion of the atomic individual, the idea that my primary duties are to myself and my rational self-interest.  Rajiv Malhotra helpfully distinguishes between synthetic unity (the prevailing view in the West), in which the individual is primary and the social dimension must be fabricated from there, and integral unity (the prevailing view in the East), in which the subject-object dichotomy is thought to be illusory and union is the norm.  This is a quick summary: those unfamiliar with Malhotra’s work should take a look at Being Different.

The typical westernized person acknowledges duties to self, to family, and to a circle of friends.  Perhaps a church or some charitable organization might also be included.  But the dharmic tradition teaches that we have five duties, the pancha rina, which break down as follows:

  1. deva-rina: debt to God [or gods]
  2. rishi-rina: debt to the sages [or gurus]
  3. pitri-rina: debt to the ancestors
  4. nri-rina: debt to [human]kind
  5. bhūta-rina: debt to the [non-]human beings

(adapted from Swami Bhaskarananda, Essentials of Hinduism, p.102)

If we take this more expansive view of duty, the shortcomings of the typical westernized view will be thrown into relief.  The usual way of thinking about duty relieves the individual from having to think about the rest of human society and the non-human and natural world.  The gods, gurus, and ancestors usually don’t even make it into the picture.

If we think in terms of the pancha rina, it will be easier to achieve the desire-less state, for we will be thinking of the good of all beings rather than only thinking of ourselves and our immediate associates.  And if we acknowledge God, gods, gurus, and ancestors, we provide a way to carry on the living tradition by setting a good example for the coming generations.  The paradox of paying attention to tradition is that it actually safeguards the future better than points of view that focus only on the present.  By honoring the past, we make way for the future.  And this is why the sixteenth chapter focuses so much on the importance of following scriptural injunctions.  If we just make things up as we go along, we will be extremely vulnerable to whatever fad happens to come along at a given moment.

Ultimately we have to eliminate desire in order to achieve liberation, and that can be a very daunting goal.  But if we place ourselves within the larger context of dharmic tradition and dharmic society, we realize that we don’t have to go it alone.  We have many others who have gone before us, who have walked in the right way and teach us how to do the same thing.  We just have to follow their example, which leads us to have compassion for all beings, to reverence the illumined ones, and to live a life of true service to others.

Gita Wisdom: Chapter Fourteen Commentary

Sanskrit verse from Bhagavad Gita

māṁ ca yo’vyabhicārena bhaktiyogena sevate

sa gunān samatītyai’tān brahmabhūyāya kalpate

One who serves Me with love and unswerving devotion transcends the three modes of material Nature and becomes fit for Nirvana. Trans. Prasad (14.26).  

Chapter fourteen explains in detail the three gunas or modes of material nature and the way to transcend them.  The lowest or most damaging guna is called tamas, which can be described as lethargy, laziness, inertia, or ignorance.  The person in whom this quality predominates will have a hard time transcending the physical nature and the life of the senses.  Addictive and self-destructive behavior is likely for someone stuck in this mode, for he or she lacks the energy, the dynamism, the force of will necessary to fully engage with the world.  Such a person likely uses other people in a manipulative sort of way in order to make it from day to day, for this type of person does not have the wherewithal necessary to become a support and refuge for others.  The quality of tamas is very strong in the present adharmic age or age of darkness (kali yuga).  Someone who only has a few tamasic tendencies can still be quite a good person but will feel stuck in life or bound by present conditions.

The guna or quality of tamas can be defeated by rajas, the second mode of material nature, which can be called passion, assertion, or willfulness.  This type of personality is much more dynamic than the tamasic individual and may even have excellent leadership ability. This guna is characterized by attachment to the fruits of action.  This pragmatic personality type is willing to work hard but always expects to see the rewards of his or her action.  The rajasic individual is therefore likely to be short-sighted, concentrated only on the needs of the present moment, and still quite attached to the life of the senses.  The quality of rajas, when it predominates, does not lead to lower birth unless it is accompanied by a heavy dose of tamas.  Many great people in the world have a predominance of rajas: they are not necessarily good or bad but do not pursue liberation either.  For this reason, they reap the fruit of rebirth into cyclic existence, likely in the same sort of incarnation that they inhabit now.

The third and final guna is called sattva, which can be translated as clarity or goodness.  Just as rajas defeats tamas, so sattva defeats rajas.  The final guna leads individuals to strive for liberation.  At this point, one begins to practice selfless service, study the scriptures, and meditate.  ONe begins to seek the company of saints and sages and begin to serve the deities.  This quality still belongs to material nature and does not itself produce liberation.  It just makes one prepared to receive liberation.  Sattva cures the wounds that have been caused by the other two gunas and leads one up to the threshold of enlightenment.

three gunas

In the key verse above, Sri Krishna says that one becomes fit for liberation by serving God.  This can be done in many ways: through work, through ritual practice, through asanas and pranayama.  Gradually the sattvic nature triumphs over the other gunas.  The sattvic individual makes him or herself a living sacrifice to the gods and becomes irresistible to the Supreme Being.  A great effort over a long period of time culminates in release, called moksha or enlightenment.  There are many smaller enlightenments that everyday spiritual aspirants experience in the course of sadhana, but  the highly realized being can enter the state of samadhi at will and does not take rebirth.

It should be stated that the vast majority of people have a combination of all three gunas in their constitution, and these three qualities fluctuate over time, depending on one’s life circumstances and the conditioned responses that one chooses in response to these circumstances.  Free will can be exercised within any guna, but it is very difficult for less realized beings to exercise free will.  For this reason, we should have strong compassion for those who are trapped within any sort of addiction.  We should also avoid diagnosing others with having a preponderance of this or that guna and apply these labels only to ourselves and only in private contemplation.  It will do no good to bemoan having a tamasic or rajasic constitution: the only thing to be done is to continue to strive for improvement, to keep accessing the sattvic nature and strengthening it according to the guru’s instructions.  Those gunas which are most exercised are the ones that grow in strength, while the less-exercised gunas atrophy.

There are also adjunct practices that can lead to a more sattvic nature.  The science of ayurveda can teach sattvic diet and prescribe herbal remedies that can ease both health conditions and various addictions.  Jyotish, the science of light, also called Vedic astrology, can prescribe planetary remedies to  ease the transition to the higher gunas.  Someone who has a tamasic nature, might say Mars (Mangala) mantra, for example, to increase his or her power of willpower and action.  Both ayurveda and jyotish require expert advice, as the wrong remedy can actually make the situation worse.  Shri Krishna, in this chapter, advises only regarding God as the doer and standing back from the three gunas to watch their play.  Taking this observer stance, the stance of detachment, requires no expert advice, can be practiced by anyone, and is highly effective.

Just to recap the three gunas in everyday language, the predominating question for the tamasic individual is, “How can I avoid having to act in the world?”  This person resorts to manipulation and bad behavior to get what he or she wants, expending the least amount of effort possible, acting not out of a desire for liberation but out of a slothful nature. The predominating question for the rajasic person is, “How can I act in the world to get what I want?” This person has come a long way from the tamasic point of view but still demands immediate recompense for all action.  The predominating question for the sattvic person is, “How can I act in the best possible way?”  This person may outwardly perform some of the exact same actions as the rajasic person, but the emphasis has changed.  This person seeks to infuse actions with love and devotion, whether these actions are practical or religious in nature.  So, with each guna, the emphasis becomes more internal and qualitative.  Notice that there is action involved in all three gunas, but the quality of that action changes as the person evolves.  The quick fix of the earlier stages gives way to patient action with the overall goal of liberation.

Gita Wisdom: Chapter Thirteen Commentary

Sanskrit verse from Bhagavad Gita


prakṛtiṁ puruṣaṁ caiva viddhy anādī ubhāv api

vikārāṁśca gunāṁś caiva viddhi prakṛtisaṁbhavān

kārya karana kartṛtve hetuḥ prkṛtir ucyate

puruṣaḥ sukhaduḥkhānāṁ bhoktṛtve hetur ucyate

Know that both the material Nature and the Spiritual Being are beginningless.  All manifestations and three dispositions of mind and matter, called modes or Gunas, are born of material Nature.  Material Nature is said to be the cause of production of the physical body and organs of perception and action.  Spirit (or Consciousness) in the individual soul is said to be the cause of experiencing pleasure and pain.  Trans. Prasad (13.19-20)

The soul does not do anything at all in any traditional sense of the word.  It comes into contact with the body, but not in any causal way.  For this reason, it remains unaffected by anything that occurs in the field of interactions with the world (prakriti).  Matter, the soul, and Brahman remain and continue despite the many alterations that may occur.  On the surface things may seem to change, but beneath the surface, the beginning-less condition remains in place.  Identification with any passing modification stems from ignorance of this underlying reality and causes suffering, while knowledge of the basic condition leads to liberation.

Engaging in what we might call, from a human point of view, good or bad actions, righteous or sinful actions, does not actually touch the soul or pollute the soul, which is eternal.  Nothing any person can do can ever affect this basic reality: the soul has always been and always will be. We can change what happens in the material field, but it will affect only the material field, which is impermanent from moment to moment and yet also without beginning.  In a real sense, there is nothing to be done in order to achieve liberation.  No austerity or renunciation changes the soul’s basic nature, or what is called the Atman-Brahman relationship.  We may debate about the various philosophies of this relationship, but it is clear that tapping into this ultimate reality, understanding ultimate reality, is what leads to release.

The good practices, sadhana and seva, are necessary insofar as they lead to this ultimate knowledge.  We must learn to detach from the thoughts that arise in the mind, seeing these fluctuations as part of what occurs in the material field.  “Mind” and “soul” are not to be equated.  We must seek that hidden refuge which remains unaffected by sadness, craving, pain, etc., and learn to dwell ever more in that quiet center.  It is only then that the turbulence will begin to subside.  The world will no longer annoy the yogi who remains unperturbed by it, who remains in the citadel of the Atman or the soul.  We imitate the enjoyer (purusha) and gradually identify with that divine enjoyer.  We observe until we become one with the Observer.

Only by stepping out of that citadel and into the reactive portion of the mind does suffering or afflictive emotion resume.  All of the practices are designed to facilitate the process of dis-identification with the reactive part of the mind and increase the contact with the silent center.  The mantras are divine weapons designed to kill the demons, that is, to purify the mind of its obsession with its lesser nature and get it to turn towards the divine.  This process can be very difficult, but many saints and sages have trodden the path ahead of us, and they leave clues as to how to get there.  Swamiji says that we must insert a pause between the event that might be bothersome and the response that we give to it.  By inserting this pause, we take time to remember who we really are and the journey in which we are engaged.  That way, we can respond in the most efficient way possible, creating as little disturbance in the field as possible.

If you are trying to see through the water in a pond, it would not be productive to stir up the mud on the bottom with a stick.  But if the mud has already been disturbed, you must quietly wait for it to settle.  Then you can see clearly what lies at the bottom of the pond.  The skillful yogi, the efficient or proficient one, creates little disturbance and so begins to see clearly.  This might not happen as fast as we might wish, but then impatience is just another disturbance to be released.  If we really want to get the job done quickly, we have to use the skillful means taught by Shri Krishna and by our gurus.  We must pause to remember who we are and where we are going.  Of course, we aren’t really going anywhere or changing into anything, but the path metaphor can be helpful.

To use another metaphor, suppose you are trying to make your way through a dark house.  You keep bumping into things and can hurt yourself if you are not careful.  If you panic, you only make the situation worse.  But if you pause and wait for your eyes to adjust to the darkness, you begin to see the faintest outlines of things as your pupils dilate to let in more light.  In the same way, the reactive mind stumbles as it encounters the world.  It thinks that it sees things clearly, but it does not.  Every decision, every thought is always tainted by a skewed, selfish view of the world.  If the reactive mind can be slowed, if some space can be inserted into its frantic activity, the whole tenor of its operations becomes more sattvic.  That is what we hope to do with meditation, japa, seva, and all of the dharmic practices.

I once heard someone say, “I have been meditating for twenty years, for an hour a day, and nothing is happening.  I am tempted to give up the practice.”  It is difficult to say with certainty what, if anything, was going wrong in this case.  It may be that the guru-disciple relationship needed to be strengthened.  It may be that the particular form of meditation was not suited to this person’s disposition.  It may be that this person had a lot of karma to be overcome.  What should be noticed above all is that we don’t know what this person would have been like without meditation.  The person that I mention was a college professor, a classical musician on the side, and a very sensitive and caring person.  I dare say that the meditation was working!  Of course, we can’t see the meditation working, but it’s not really up to us to judge the efficacy.

Gita Wisdom: Chapter Twelve Commentary

Sanskrit verse from Bhagavad Gita

śreyo hī jñānam abhyāsāj jñānād dhyānaṁ viśiṣyate

dhyānāt karmaphala tyāgas tyāgāc chantir anantaram

The transcendental knowledge of scriptures is better than mere ritualistic practice; meditation is better than scriptural knowledge; renunciation of selfish attachment to the fruits of work (Karma Yoga) is better than meditation because peace immediately follows renunciation of selfish motives. 12.12 Trans. Prasad

This chapter outlines four different paths to approaching God (in ascending order): ritualistic practice, knowledge of scriptures, meditation, and renunciation of the fruits of action.  First of all, we should notice that none of these practices are at all condemned by Shri Krishna, as all of them are effective paths to liberation.  Each person should take the path that suits his or her past karma and present disposition.  It should also be noticed that these paths are not mutually exclusive.  One may meditate while performing ritualistic actions: indeed, the original purpose of puja and homa is to guide the worshipper into meditation.    Also, one may undertake such activities for unselfish purposes, as when one conducts sadhana for world peace.

There also seems to be an ascending degree of difficulty here.  A street vendor may reach complete liberation simply by selling newspapers or snacks, provided that the street vendor makes each sale as an act of devotion to Shri Krishna.  The same could be said of any profession or any way of life.  Sanatana Dharma insists that the state of mind, the disposition of the heart really matters, as opposed to what may be happening outwardly.  Any action can become a kind of worship when it is offered with a loving, reverential spirit.  We might be tempted to wonder why we need rituals and meditation at all, if the path of renunciation is enough.

Well, precisely because the mind is so difficult to tame do we need these other practices.  I can easily become heedless, performing actions without the intention of Self-realization.  I can get caught up in the veil of Maya, in which I forget to regard everything as a manifestation of the ultimate reality.  So I need gods in order to take me to God.  I need personal devotion.  I need to offer fruit, flowers, incense, flame, and water before my ishta devātā.  I need meditation, so that I realize that this murthi really is my point of contact with that manifestation of divinity.  It is not an inert object: it is the living presence of the divine in my life.  I then need scriptures to make sure that my head stays “screwed on straight,” as my dad would say, so that I see my activities within the context of the whole.

Then when I arrive at work, wherever that might be, I come to the job with this frame of mind that everything is worship.  I can look at the phone, the computer, the broom, the vacuum, the street, the clients, the students, the customers, as the context in which divinity unfolds.  I can tear down the dividing wall between the sacred and the mundane and behave as I would in the temple.  I can keep silent within and renounce the fruits of action.  Shri Ramakrishna was fond of using the image of water sliding off of a duck’s back.  He would also talk about walking in the rain without getting wet.  In other words, we should complete worldly actions with divine intent.  This is the most difficult yoga, but it is also the most rewarding and the culmination of the other types of discipline.

Perhaps we can begin to stay in this state for just a few minutes each day, and then a few hours each day, and then a whole day, and then whole weeks, and so forth.  This requires an odd combination of toughness and gentleness, self-discipline and self-forgiveness.  It requires a willingness to keep trying when the negative emotions overpower the wisdom within.  The work is certainly worthwhile, because things can be so beautiful when seeing the world from a point of view where no payback is desired or required.  Suddenly the world pops into brilliant color and life, once we stop the game of passion and anger.  Today let’s begin again to begin again, to strive to put our charioteer’s advice into practice.


Gita Wisdom: Chapter Eleven Commentary

Sanskrit verse from Bhagavad Gita

tvam ādidevaḥ puruaḥ purānas

tvam asya viśvasya para nidhānam

vettāsi vedya ca para ca dhāma

tvayā tata viśvam anantarūpa

You are the primal God, the most ancient Person. You are the ultimate resort of the entire universe. You are the knower, the object of knowledge, and the Supreme Abode.  O Lord of the infinite form, You pervade the entire universe. 11.38 Trans. Prasad

In the eleventh chapter, Shri Krishna reveals his true form to Arjuna, who is over-awed by the Lord’s presence.  Arjuna is one of the few who see God face-to-face in a moment of incredible clarity.  We may find ourselves wanting such a revelation of God’s true form, and, indeed, such a vision is never far from us.  We prevent ourselves from seeing this dazzling reality through our habitual ways of thinking, which surround the ego in a comfortable cocoon of mundane reality.  We don’t see God, because it is disturbing, challenging, uncomfortable to do so.  It is much easier to just fill our minds with trivia than to seek the beatific vision.

Americans often go on a sort of secular pilgrimage to the Grand Canyon, to look out across its vastness and the beautiful strata of ancient rock.  Such an experience makes one feel small and insignificant in comparison to the vastness of space and the depth of geological time.  In this way, one goes back to daily life with various problems and concerns put into perspective.  But suppose that, instead of looking out on the canyon, a tourist were to only look back at the highway and the gift shop.  Suppose that person did not even see the canyon at all.  Suppose that person mumbled, “Where is this canyon?  Where? I only see a road and a gift shop.”

This is the situation in our lives.  We become so enamored with the world that we forget God.  Of course, the world is in God and God in the world, but that knowledge can be difficult to understand and even more difficult to realize.  Even those who truly want illumination can have a hard time finding it, mostly due to the pressures of contemporary life.  Never before have people been so assaulted with information and advertisements; never before has so much work been required to earn a decent living; never before have traditional ways of living been so eroded.  This is why Hindus call this the Kali yuga, the dark age, or what we might call the age of confusion. We find ourselves in the odd position of having to learn how to see what is right in front of our faces.

Some thoughts on how to see this incredible divine brilliance in the world follow.  First, the best and most costly teacher is silence.  Silence comes in two forms, interior and exterior, each dependent on the other.  Without a quiet heart, it will do no good to have the exterior form.  Likewise, exterior silence can help to raise consciousness of the noise and conflict within.  Master one kind of silence, and you have a better shot at attaining the other.  It helps to find a distraction-free or at least distraction-minimized environment and to do things slowly and deliberately, with an attitude of patient listening.

Next, mantra, literally, “that which takes away the mind,” can help with restless thinking processes.  One can use a mantra related to a favorite divinity, or one can use a verse from scripture, like the one above.  Using a mala to count repetitions will lessen the need to count mentally.  Once the feeling and attitude of the mantra has been absorbed, it will be good to take a pause for silent contemplation.  One may also pause on the initial, or guru, bead, to petition the deity to take away any distractions for the next round of recitation.  If the mantra doesn’t seem to be working, try more repetitions, say even 10 or 20 malas a day.  This will be necessary to jump-start the practice if it feels sluggish in nature.

Of course, we could name many other yogic practices, but that will have to wait for another time.  To just address another question, “What happens if you sincerely seek the divine, with all energy and devotion, and still nothing happens?”  The bhakti saints of Hinduism use that sense of absence, of duality, and make that, too, into a vehicle for seeking God.  Take that sorrow, that pain of separation from the Beloved, and refuse to fill your aching heart with anything else.  Do not drown the pain in worldly enjoyment, as that simply prolongs it.  Argue with God and make demands.  Become more fervent and more fervent still.  If you refuse to let go over a long enough time, the vision will dawn.  Just keep in mind that you will never be the same once that happens.

Bhagavad Gita Wisdom, Chapter Eight

Sanskrit verse from Bhagavad Gita

One who remembers Me exclusively, even while leaving the body at the time of death, attains the Supreme Abode; there is no doubt about it.  VIII.08 Trans. Prasad.   

Philosophers East and West have recommended the contemplation of death as a pathway to wisdom.  Remembering death reminds us of the transitory nature of the body and the short amount of time that we have here on Earth.  Death reminds us of who and what we value as opposed to the myriad ways that we practice techniques of distraction in order to forget ourselves and our condition.  Remembering that we will die need not be depressing or fatalistic, since it awakens us to the fact of our present life.  And yet this verse from the Gita does not attempt to sell us on some rose-colored view of reality.  A little later in the chapter, the material sphere of existence is called, “this miserable transitory world”  (duḥkālayam, 8.15), from which it would be a great privilege to escape.

Escape from the world must not take the form of neglecting duty, as we are reminded over and over again in this classic spiritual text.  So how are we to simultaneously fulfill our duties and yet still practice the art of remembrance?  We need to offer work as worship and yet also take some time apart for yogic techniques of meditation.  The refuge of ultimate reality is available for all of those who earnestly seek it, in this life and the next.  By taking time apart to seek this hidden refuge, we can return to work in the world more refreshed, with the burden of earthly problems lessened.  Our tired bodies and minds need this occasional respite from the preoccupations of daily life.

So we can see here a process of first, doing our duty conscientiously without regard for the result, and second, taking breaks for yogic discipline to remember the supreme reality.  This becomes a positive feedback loop where meditation informs life and life informs meditation, where troubles and cares are transformed into a means of perfecting oneself.  This should be distinguished from perfectionism, which induces perpetual anxiety, since the perfection already exists in Hari, the Lord.  The perfectionist seeks to create perfection single-handedly, while the devotee knows that perfection is already there.  In an individualist metaphysics, the separate self must continually labor over and against nature, while, in the interconnected perspective of the Gita, everything is already immersed in the Supreme.

We can fulfill the teaching of this chapter by going about our business diligently and quietly, not seeking reward or credit, not creating an anxious frame of mind.  We must also take some breaks during the day to chant and meditate, so that we cultivate the habit of remembrance.  We must know that we are not guaranteed to live in this lifetime forever, but this should not provoke anxiety.  We know at all times that we are surrounded by complete fullness and perfection, and that this Reality envelops the mundane world.  By living in this knowledge, it becomes more readily apparent, and life comes to seem, well… a battle, yes,  but one in which we are completely safe.