Archive for October, 2013

The context of the Bhagavad Gita

Written by Heal Your Heart on . Posted in Living the Bhagavad Gita

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For those unfamiliar with the context of the Bhagavad Gita, here goes..

Translated as the “Song of God”, the Gita is a dialogue between Arjuna, a warrior prince and Lord Krishna, functioning here as Arjuna’s charioteer. This dialogue is historically believed to have occurred on the first day of the great war of Kurukshetra. Written in the form of 700 verses, it is narrated by Sanjaya, the charioteer of king Dhritharashtra. The Gita occurs exactly in the middle of the Indian epic Mahabharata. Strange circumstances for a discourse…

How did this war come to be, and why is it relevant nearly 5,000 years (by some estimates) later? The details of the Mahabharata are beyond the scope of these writings, but a brief and necessary summary is needed..

Dhritharashtra and Pandu are brother-princes of a particular (Sun) dynasty. Dhritharashtra, although older, is born blind and thus, Pandu is crowned king. This is where this story begins in earnest – lifelong jealousy on Dhritharashtra’s part, which will eventually cost him everything. Pandu has 5 sons who are known as the Pandavas – Yudhishtra, Bheema, Arjuna, Nakula and Sahadeva. Dhritharashtra has 100 sons and one daughter, called Kauravas after the Kuru dynasty. The most prolific of all his sons are Duryodhana and Dushasana. The Pandavas and Kauravas grow up together, have the same gurus and eventually become arch rivals, in their attempts to outdo each other in bravery, strength and warfare skills. Pandu dies young, leaving Dhritharashtra the throne, who in turn, tries to be fair and kind to his nephews as they grow up. When they reach adulthood, he gives them the undesirable half of kingdom that they spruce up well, establishing peace and justice and invoking Duryodhana’s intense jealousy. Further, they marry Draupadi, a coveted princess, invoking further jealousy and hatred from Duryodhana.

Meanwhile, Krishna is growing up in Vrindavan as the foster son of Nanda and Yashoda, cowherds by vocation. His childhood is filled with miracles and mystical phenomena wherever he sets foot. The supreme avatar of Lord Vishnu, he keeps everyone around him entrenched in his own maya such that even with him performing superhuman feats, everyone surrounding him is fooled into thinking of him as one of their own. Humans, animals, plants, trees, the Yamuna river and even inanimate objects are transformed in his divine presence. He is related to the Pandavas in that Kunti, the mother of the older three, is his aunt. As the Pandavas grow into able princes, Krishna himself grows into an astute politician and king-maker.

Finally unable to bear the growing fame and prosperity of his able cousins, Duryodhana calls upon his cunning uncle and scheming up a plan to destroy them, they invite the Pandavas for a game of dice. Little by little, the Pandavas lose everything in this gamble, including their kingdom, wealth and finally, Draupadi. She is dragged into the court by her hair, and in front of the king, the gurus, all the ministers, and her husbands, an attempt is made to disrobe her. Initially she resists, and begs for mercy, but when her pleas fall upon deaf ears, she turns to Krishna, surrendering her will unto Him. All of a sudden, all attempts to shame her fail, as the sari covering her grows even as it is pulled away.  Finally exhausted, the Kauravas give up and Duryodhana banishes the Pandavas with Draupadi into exile for 12 years with the condition that the 13th year be spent incognito; if discovered, they would be banished for 12 more years. They complete the exile braving many adventures, and gaining further mastery in warfare, spending time in severe austerities along the way.

When the Pandavas return and ask for their kingdom to be handed back, Duryodhana refuses outright, famously declaring that he would not give them land to fit the tip of a needle, instead challenging them to war. Krishna, ever the king-maker, tries in every way to negotiate, but Duryodhana is intent on war – he travels across the country, forming allegiances, cajoling and threatening kings everywhere to join him or be challenged. As a result, the Kaurava army turns out to be several times bigger than the Pandavas’ – even the gurus, relatives and friends common to both parties are forced to side with Duryodhana.

Finally, Duryodhana and Arjuna arrive at Krishna’s door to ask for his help. Krishna sees Arjuna first and gives him the choice between himself who will not fight, and will simply act as guide or his immensely  powerful Yadava army – despite being desperate in this already seemingly losing war, Arjuna picks Krishna. Duryodhana is elated to have the Yadava army fighting for him. And the war begins.

Since Dhritharashtra is blind, he asks his messenger and charioteer, Sanjaya, to provide a live commentary on the war. Sanjaya is an ardent devotee of Krishna, who grants him divine sight and hearing to enable him to see and hear remotely..

So here we are on the battleground of Kurukshetra. All the participants blow their conches, adrenaline is high with hatred, fear and excitement.. Krishna wordlessly drives the chariot, placing it strategically where Arjuna can survey the whole battlefield. Arjuna sees the smaller Pandava army on one side, facing off with the substantially larger Kaurava army on the other, filled with his cousins, gurus, uncles, childhood playmates and loved ones..

Navarathri – A Time for Sublime Surrender and Inquiry

Written by Heal Your Heart on . Posted in Yoga Practices

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Navarathri began 3 days ago (nava = 9, rathri = night; the festival of 9 nights), a celebration of Shakti in all Her forms. Although there are numerous stories associated with Navarathri, the most well-known is from the Devi Mahatmyam, where the divine mother is adored in her three main forms: as Kali or Durga the first 3 days, Lakshmi the next 3 days, and Saraswathi the last 3 days.

There is a deep symbolic significance to this, paralleling one’s own spiritual path. A well-known daily prayer from the Brihadarinyaka Upanishad seems to capture the entire significance of Navarathri:

“Asato ma sadgamaya, tamaso ma jyotirgamaya, mrityorma amrintangamaya”

“Lead me from untruth to truth, from ignorance to light, from death to immortality”

Ignorance of our true nature leads us to believe in the separateness of the ego-self, the mother of all untruths. Veiled by the darkness of this ignorance (of our true nature), entrenched in untruth (of identification as the separate self), we become stuck in the cycle of birth and death (of the present moment being colored again and again by past conditioning, in an endless loop).

Kali/Durga is the primordial form of Shakti that slays egoic conditioning so the past can be left behind and the present can be lived (from death to immortality). Lifting of that egoic darkness of conditioning by Kali simultaneously lets in Lakshmi, who embodies all goodness and abundance (from ignorance to light). Rigorously prepped thus by Kali and Lakshmi, superior knowledge takes birth in the form of Saraswathi, who reigns over subtle discrimation between the real and unreal (from untruth to truth).

In our own paths, bhakti and surrender lead us to ever-deepening spiritual practices and openings, ripening us. The seeker’s Navarathri begins in earnest with letting go of egoic tendencies. Asking, “Is this true?” in a given circumstance invariably leads to seeing that nothing in the transactional world is ever absolutely true. Digging deeper, we are led to, “If this isn’t true, what made me think that?” bringing us face-to-face with our own delusions. As Kali mercilessly slays each delusion as it comes up, Lakshmi blesses us with fortitude and abundance. The pristine Saraswathi finally makes an appearance as we are led to deeply inquiring, “Who is this I..?”

The 10th day of Navarathri is called “Vijayadashmi” (vijaya = victory, dashmi = the 10th day of the new moon), signifying the end of the journey of the individual soul – that which was previously deluded to be the separate ego-self has now come to rest in it’s supreme knowledge of itself as That.

Shakti, through her own Maya, creates the illusion of duality. It is through her playful Maya that we come to believe ourselves to be the separate self. And in this primary belief, we go through endless cycles of suffering, pain and joy, with nothing remaining permanent. It is through her Grace that we are drawn to re-discover our true identity, are led to teachers and teachings, to practices and to openings. And it is through her Grace that her own play of duality is finally seen through.

Happy Navarathri!

The Choice

Written by Heal Your Heart on . Posted in Living the Bhagavad Gita, Yoga Practices

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In the previous post, we understood the context of the Bhagavad Gita and how we find ourselves on the battlefield of Kurukshetra..

Now let us delve deeper into Krishna’s entry into the war, and the deeper symbolic significance of Arjuna’s choice.

Hindu dharma contains teachings on reality and the nature of existence that are described in apparently disparate ways, from the poignant non-dual (Advaita) discourses of the Upanishads to the stories and narratives of the Puranas, and a host of teachings panning the entire spectrum of philosophies. However, these seemingly contradictory teachings have one common symbolic story – from the undifferentiated consciousness (Brahman, explained in later posts in detail) arise the creator (Lord Brahma), sustainer (Lord Vishnu) and the destroyer (Lord Shiva). For many reasons not elaborated here, Vishnu and Shiva are venerated in mythology much more than Brahma. Both Vishnu and Shiva take many avatars to appear on Earth and other planets/universes to affect changes needed in the ongoing continuity of creation across multiple cycles of time. At the end of a set time cycle (consisting of millions of years), all of creation collapses back into undifferentiated consciousness, the cosmos and its individual constituents going back to their “seed” forms. That state remains beyond space and time. When creation springs forth, the cycle begins again, marking the beginning of time and space.. And so it goes..

Krishna is the most well-known avatar of Lord Vishnu. In the Gita and elsewhere, the Lord declares emphatically that he will incarnate whenever there is a collective descent into adharma (opposite of dharma) to restore the balance of the Universe. In the Treta yuga (the period of time when the Mahabharata takes place), there is a collective descent into adharma, with rampant violence, greed, selfishness, and overall “darkness”. Mother Earth appeals to Brahma to help abate the chaos. He, in turn, beseeches Vishnu to help. And the magnificent, supremely compassionate and all-knowing Vishnu agrees to take not just an ordinary incarnation, but a “full” (“sampoorna” in Sanskrit) avatar, as His own supreme self, as Krishna. And thus, no event in Krishna’ s life is “ordinary”. In his childhood, he is the innocent, mystical boy of Vrindavan that has every creature wrapped around his little finger. In his youth, he is the just and able Yadava king of Dwaraka. In adulthood, he is the powerful king-maker of the nation. In the Mahabharata, he is the politician and as we will see, the quiet, “behind-the-scene” cause of every warrior’s ultimate fate.

Krishna tries his best to avoid the war of Kurukshetra. He appeals to Duryodhana, to Dhritharashtra, to Bheesma and others in vain. Finally giving up on peace efforts, he returns to Dwaraka.

Duryodhana and the Pandavas spend many months getting their armies banded once the war is imminent. Since Duryodhana is the reigning king of the most powerful kingdom in Bharat (India), he is able to gather a much bigger army, often through threats. Eventually, it is time to ask for allegiance of the Yadavas. Krishna’s brother, Balarama, is one of the cousins’ gurus. He has taught them warfare, particularly mace-wielding. Duryodhana and Arjuna’s brother, Bheema favor the mace as weapons and excel at it. Krishna and Balarama lord over the powerful Yadava army.

Duryodhana and Arjuna arrive at Dwaraka (Krishna’s kingdom) simultaneously, walking in together into Krishna’s palace where he is lying down, pretending to be asleep. Duryodhana stations himself by Krishna’s head, impatient and fidgety, while Arjuna stands humbly by his feet, head bowed and in awe to see his friend and revered guide resting. Krishna opens his eyes and sees Arjuna first. Knowing why they are there, he gives Arjuna the choice between him (Krishna) and his army (including the formidable Balarama). Arjuna doesn’t even blink an eye and immediately picks Krishna. Duryodhana is elated to have the undefeated Balarama and the Yadava army.

Symbolically, this “choosing” is that critical point in our own paths where oneness with God is the single, most desired goal (even at the cost of losing everything else). This is the beginning of the end of identification as the separate egoic self. “Mumukshutvam” is the quality of burning desire for that Supreme knowledge. This fire is all-consuming, to the extent that in every moment of a seeker’s life, the quest for God is singular and uncompromising. According to Shankaracharya, this burning desire is one of the quintessential qualities of a seeker.

This poignant episode from the Mahabharat had haunted me for years. I had always wondered what I would do if I were in Arjuna’s desperate situation. In the face of near certain defeat (his army was considerably smaller than Duryodhana’s) and near certain death (Duryodhana’s army boasted of some of the greatest warriors of the day), would I pick Krishna (who would not fight) or his army (that would be very helpful)? Did I have what it takes to throw away everything and surrender to the Lord, my beloved Ishta? All through the years that this came up in me, I did not know what my choice would be.

About two years ago, I woke up early as usual, finished my meditation practices and sat in the kitchen with a cup of coffee. It was still very dark on a cold January morning and the house was still, with at least an hour before the others would stir. I sat listening to my favorite kirtan playing softly, gazing at the picture of Krishna on the altar, lost in ecstatic bliss. Suddenly, I felt his divine presence in the kitchen and was simultaneously swept into a magnificent vision – all I could see were Krishna’s beautiful feet and lower legs swathed in yellow silk, all bathed in a brilliant, dazzling light. In that instant, I knew. I knew without a doubt that not only would I choose my beloved Krishna, but I already had. He was showing me this in the vision, erasing any self-doubts I had had. I saw that through the most trying times in my life, I had rested knowing I only needed (and wanted) Him. The knowing bestowed through the vision was intuitive, a certainty that comes from a totally different place than secular knowledge.. And since then, I have felt what Arjuna must have felt standing by Krishna’s feet as He slept.

Everything that follows in the Bhagavad Gita is a result of this critical incident – Arjuna’s Grace-infused decision. The great choice.