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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
Vamsee Juluri’s Rearming Hinduism: Nature, Hinduphobia, and the Return of Indian Intelligence (Westland, 2014) explains the Doniger controversy from a pro-Hindu, Indian point of view. Wendy Doniger’s book, The Hindus: An Alternative History, made the news when the publisher, Penguin India, pulled the title from the shelves to avoid further legal complications in the Indian courts, as many Hindus, and not just those of the far right, found the book offensive. Juluri explains that the book does not amount to an “alternative” history at all, inasmuch as it repeats some of the standard tropes of Victorian-era scholarship, such as the now-discredited Aryan invasion theory and the slander of all of Hinduism as the ideology of caste. Juluri believes that Doniger created a straw man in the male Brahmin, who is to be blamed for the supposed puritanical, misogynist nature of the dharmic faiths in India. Juluri also echoes the chorus of voices who have criticized Doniger and Courtright over the sexualization of Hindu symbols like the Shiva lingam and Lord Ganesha’s trunk. The first half of the book systematically addresses Doniger’s book by showing how caste relations are far more complicated than Doniger avers, as when economically less well-off Brahmins worship lower-caste gurus from wealthier backgrounds. The sexualization of the gods is out of place, given that many devotees see themselves as the parents of the baby Ganesha or Krishna: academic studies that work in the Freudian vein thus come to seem pedophilic. The Aryan invasion theory, currently dying a very slow death, Juluri sees as a projection of Eurocentric belief systems (the Indian as an honorary white person), which, consciously or not, can only attribute greatness to architecture, literature, and other creations by those of Western stock. The book does a good job of showing why so many Indians were up in arms about the Doniger book, not out of some puritanical or fundamentalist stance, but because it perpetuates myths (in the negative sense of the word) about Hinduism that ought to have died a long time ago.
The other goal of Juluri’s work is to show the relevance of Hinduism for today’s world, particularly the belief in ahimsa and the divine in all things. Juluri sympathizes with the animal rights and animal studies movements in academia, and he references Jonathan Safran Foer and Jeremy Rifkin’s criticisms of factory farming and the meat-eating diet. The Doniger fight eclipses the larger issue of how the philosophy of non-harming can become India’s gift to the world. Petty dismissals of Hinduism as “cow worship,” “caste-based discrimination,” and the like run the risk of eschewing the potential solutions that India has for the consumptive lifestyles of America and Europe. By looking to its own scriptural roots and the model of its holy people, Hinduism can offer an alternative to the industrial-scale destruction of life now taking place on our planet. Only by “rearming” Hinduism, that is, by eloquently and forcefully answering the knee-jerk criticisms of the eternal dharma, can the potential of this millennia-old religion come to the fore. Then perhaps, nonviolence (and Juluri is a Ghandian) can come to the fore just in time to avert some of the worst consequences of ecocidal capitalism. The denigration of Hinduism hides the massive irrationality of a world system (built on Western, liberal values) that catapults life itself over the edge of the cliff of overconsumption and climate change.
Juluri’s Rearming Hinduism reads like a living room conversation, offering an apologetic for Hinduism, but never in a condescending or simplistic manner. The aim is always to present Hinduism as a faith that provides hope for the whole world. Juluri writes:
Hinduism after all has never been about us or them; but only about us and them, and that ‘them’ includes not just people of other nations or religions, but also those living beings of different species too. We must restore Hinduism not just for the sake of Hindus, but for all living beings in this world, for the sake of all nature. Though we are not in the business of saving anything or anyone against their will, we can’t help our kindness when we see destructiveness, and self-destructiveness (loc. 367-369).
The book addresses itself mostly to born-Hindus, who grew up in the Indian educational system, but converts will find much to enjoy here as well. Many devotees worldwide, whether or not they came from Indian households, were first introduced to Indian religion and philosophy through vegetarianism or veganism. The fact that the book places ahimsa at the center will appeal to this segment of the Hindu religions. Juluri invites us to think that perhaps the relationship between Hinduism and Western scholarship (and the general public) will enter its most productive phase when Hindus are willing to intelligently defend their belief systems and when adherents of Western “progress” and “civilization” realize that perhaps ahimsa holds the key to a sustainable future.
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.
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:
- deva-rina: debt to God [or gods]
- rishi-rina: debt to the sages [or gurus]
- pitri-rina: debt to the ancestors
- nri-rina: debt to [human]kind
- 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.
sarvasya cā’haṁ hṛdi saṁniviṣṭo
mattaḥ smṛtir jñānam apohanaṁ ca
vedaiśca sarvair aham eva vedyo
vedāntakṛd vedavid eva cā’ham
And I am seated in the inner psyche of all beings. Memory, Self-knowledge, and removal of doubts and wrong notions about God come from Me. I am, in truth, that which is to be known by the study of the Vedas. I am, indeed, the author as well as the student of the Vedas. (15.5 Trans. Prasad)
Deep down inside yourself, beneath the passing concerns of everyday life, you already know the way home. Lord Krishna has concealed in each individual this soul which wants to return to its Source. This spark of divinity, invisible to the naked eye, exerts an influence on the devotee without controlling the devotee. It partakes in the senses and the mind without being affected in return. It is the activator and origin of the faculties, the mind of minds and heart of hearts.
Imagine that you take an air-filled ball and shove it beneath the surface of a swimming pool. It will be difficult to push it beneath the surface, as it always wants to return to the air above. The lighter density of the air as compared to the water makes this commonplace but powerful effect happen. We can compare this to the indwelling divine soul, which always wants to return to God. We think of Enlightenment as requiring heroic effort, but it only seems this way to our limited minds. In reality, the journey to God is quite rapid and natural, the course of nature at work.
It seems difficult to realize God because of all of the distractions in the mind, the doubts that constantly nag and the ignorance that obscures the truth. Realization would be easy if we would only stop fighting it so strenuously. It takes a great deal of effort, actually, to keep it from happening. We must work very hard to stay distracted, to keep chasing after desires, to do everything but follow the eternal truth. If we silence the chatter within, we begin to feel the pull of the heart, which longs to be in full contact with the divine nature.
A secret guiding force rests within the heart center, always available to the sincere seeker. This divine Self can be accessed through interior silence, by stopping the inquiry into gratification of the senses, by giving up the desire to elaborate on mental constructs and scenarios. The sincere devotee obtains liberation by seeking the dwelling place of the Lord within, by taking refuge in the temple of the heart. Rather than just checking in with the heart center for a quick bit of rest, those who seek liberation in this lifetime learn to live from the heart center.
The heart can become a fortress rather than just a temporary resting place. The realized seeker will be so exhausted from the continual battles of the world and will withdraw to a place of safety. In this calm place, there will be indifference to victory or defeat. The fluctuations, the drama of life will no longer have any effect. A person who has reached this detached state cannot be moved by fear or pity, by hope or desire. Such a person becomes rock solid in intention and affect and becomes a refuge for others.
Even such a realized being must still act in the world, but the character of that action will be forever changed. The realized sage no longer needs anything from the people who come to him or her for advice, which means that the advice will not be tainted by the ego nature. This speeds the process of evolution for the seeker, who will be motivated in turn to help others. The realized souls become catalysts for humanity, to help this world become a better place for all beings. The one who has practiced internal renunciation has a ripple effect on the whole world, from the simple fact of letting go of desire.
The inner renunciation of letting go of desire is not limited to those who live in a monastic state. The householder who retreats into the cave of the heart while performing his or her duties in the world will be just as eligible for liberation as the sannyasin sitting on the banks of the Ganga. The religious practices like puja and homa are aids to internal work of renunciation. They help the aspirant to raise his or her consciousness, but they can also be obstacles if they become the occasion for pride. One must let go of the fruits of religious practice just as one must let go of the fruits of work in the world if the journey of liberation is to be completed.
Nothing actually needs to be done in order for liberation to be happen. The soul already partakes in the divine nature. Only ignorance gets in the way of the perception of this divine nature. The practices of the dharmic traditions just help to unwind the compounded false beliefs that have accreted in the limited mind. Sadhana is as much a negative path as it is a positive path to liberation. We let go of the false beliefs and replace them with true beliefs. In time, with great care and effort, the sun of liberation shines more brightly.
This is not something that will happen “one day,” because we do have a choice. We can make this process more efficient by letting go of all the bad habits that distract from the true goal. We can live deeper into the reality of our divine nature right this minute, by performing actions with great love and by shutting the mind to the influence of desire. We will not have to wait any longer, as the divine Self resides right here in this moment in the cave of the heart.
1. Everything changes, nothing remains the same. Everything flows into one form and then another. Do away with the rigidity of your mind, with the rigidity of your life. As soon as you begin to let go, energy begins to flow. As soon as you stop insisting on a certain course of action, the right way will become known to you. You cannot change without surrendering.
2. You seek the advice of experts, a bit of inspiration, a good word here or there. You are like a great king who dressed himself in the guise of a beggar and went around the kingdom asking for bread. One day the king remembered his true identity. He returned to the palace and wept at his great fortune. You too will remember: you too will weep.
3. Every door represents a transition, a portal between worlds, a passage. Take a moment to reflect each time you pass a threshold. Say thanks for the opportunity to pass through. Make an effort to open the doors of your heart, the doors of your mind. Each door is a gateway into the unknown: so is each minute, each hour, each day.
4. To remove negative energy from your relationships, drop the dualistic frame of mind. Stop thinking of me and mine, you and yours. Relationships change, just as all things change. As soon as you drop the ideal vision of how things are supposed to be, you will have no more complaint against your partner. The “should” is the only problem.
5. To improve your own health, take a look at the health of those in your family, including your companion animals. You cannot be healthy if you have not walked your dog. You cannot be healthy if your children have not played outside. You cannot be healthy if your partner is not healthy. As soon as you start thinking of the whole, things begin to improve.
6. You think so much of wealth and prosperity, but do you think of the wealth and prosperity of others? The true person, the sage, makes others wealthy. In order to be wealthy, you must give everything away. You must give of your skills, you must give of your time, and you must give of your money. You will see everything returned to you many times over, but try to put this out of your mind.
7. Some people foolishly think that good luck comes from hard work. Others foolishly think that good luck drops down from heaven. Good luck really comes from heaven and earth, wind and water, effort and resignation. You cannot manufacture good luck; neither does it come from nowhere. Open yourself to it, but do not force things.
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.
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.
A biography of the realized sage, Sri Baba Lokenath (1730-1890), has just been published in English. This book, the first of its kind, is written by Baba’s disciple, Shuddhaanandaa Brahmachari, who established a Baba Lokenath temple at his personal ashram in the Himalayas and spent many years meditating on Baba and collecting historical research. Baba Lokenath is known for severe austerities, for his travels with Trailinga Swami, and for his many miracles. For beginning seekers, the stories of extreme asceticism can be intimidating, but Shudhaanandaa does a good job of including meditations that anyone can practice at the end of each chapter. Here is one meditation from the book:
Sitting comfortably erect for meditation, offer all that you are into the rising and falling of the light within the breath. When you are deeply relaxed, see yourself before you were born, as a spark of diamond-white light in the Divine Heart. Feel the pure, sweet, nurturing energies of the Divine all around you, like a womb. Feel the pure essence of the Divine as your own essence. This is home, where you come from, who you are beyond form. Allow the golden-white, Divine Light to flow through you now, informing and forming your life today in ways that are beyond your understanding. Wrapped in the Light that is your true home, know that you are safe, that you can always return to this Light, because it is who you are. Everything else will one day disappear. Only this Light will be left. Whenever you are beset with difficulty, remember this simple, brilliant spark of Light that you are. Offer your troubles into it. Let the Light burn them away until they disappear into the Light (from the end of chapter two).
I was struck by the feminine image of the womb in this meditation and also by the practical aspect of releasing problems into the Light. If any distractions or worries remain after the opening part of the meditation, one has an opportunity to deal with these at the end. This could be a good accompaniment to pranayama, for those who wonder what to do mentally when completing the breath work. Through this exercise, we can all get a small taste of the life of this amazing ascetic.
A brief review and excerpt of The Incredible Life of a Himalayan Yogi: The Times, Teaching, and Life of Living Shiva, Baba Lokenath Brahmachari, by Shuddhaanandaa Brahmachari, edited by Ann Shannon. Kolkata: Lokenath Divine Life Mission, 2014. The Amazon Kindle edition was used for this post.
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.