Bhagavad Gita – the handbook for living

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

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In this new series of writings, I will attempt to deliberate on various teachings and concepts as they occur in the Bhagavad Gita. There are many fantastic commentaries on this great scripture; the writings here will not be a translation or commentary based on any one author, but how it relates to my (and the commonality of everyone’s) spiritual path, practices and openings, and a host of concepts as they appear in the Gita.

These include:

*Suffering and sin
*Bhakti and surrender
*The ultimate understanding and letting go

When I began reading the Gita as a teenager, it was seen as the quintessential text of karma yoga, with the message, “Do your duty and don’t worry about the fruit of action.” While my main focus at the time was to memorize the verses in Sanskrit for chanting competitions, the deeper I dug, the more intriguing it became, each word placed strategically, flowering with multiple meanings that often pop up in my understanding at unexpected times. With continued study over the last 20 years, I’ve come to see the Gita as the epitome of teachings of Bhakti and Jnana yoga, and the amalgamation of all paths that lead to God.

Before delving in, the background and set-up of the Gita must be understood.. And that will be explained in the next few posts.

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..

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.

The War Within

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

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The armies have been assembled, the choices made. On the appointed day at the appointed time, the armies face-off on the battlefield of Kurukshetra (near present day New Delhi).

The entire Gita is written from the standpoint of Sanjaya, the messenger of the blind king Dhrithrasthtra. The two station themselves remotely, with Sanjaya providing “live” details as they happen, being blessed with divine vision (ability to see remote events clearly) by Krishna.

The very first verse of the Gita begins with Dhritharasthra asking Sanjaya, “O Sanjaya, what did my sons and the sons of Pandu do when eager to fight, they gathered on Kurukshetra the battleground of Dharma?”

And so it is that right from the outset, this is not about a war fought in an ancient world, but the war waging within each of us at any given moment. Kurukshetra is right here, right now – the inner conflict that is the hallmark of human existence. And it all has to do with what has been termed dharma.

Dharma is quite simply, natural law – that upon which all creation rests. If we can remain rooted in our own personal dharma, there would be no inner conflict and there would be peace at all times. However, although it is a simple definition, the murky thing is to know what one’s dharma is. In the context of the Gita and other Vedic literature, in order to understand dharma, it helps to understand three other concepts – guna, varna and ashrama.

Guna is “quality”, tendency or aptitude. All of creation can be seen to be composed of 3 gunas – tamas, rajas and sattva. Tamas refers to the quality of inertia, darkness, and/or heaviness, rajas of movement, action, dynamism and sattva of purity, lightness, light. Tamas makes up the structure of the universe, rajas provides movement, and sattva the intelligence. In all creatures, these qualities in specific combinations, make up the individual psyche/nature/personality. Evolution entails moving from tamas to rajas to sattva. Tamas in us results in inertia, lack of motivation, laziness, etc, rajas results in activity (and hyperactivity), movement, determination, accomplishment, etc and sattva results in quiet mind, clarity, purity of being, etc. The gunas also determine the “tightness” of ego-identification or “I- and my-ness”. Tamas results in total entrapment in the ego (separate self) on all levels, rajas to a lower degree and sattva to a still lower degree of such clinging to “I” and “me”.

Varna is the sorting, classification or division of a group. In 4:13, Krishna declares that he created 4 varnas (castes) according to guna and work/vocation: Brahmin (not Brahman), Kshatriya, Vaishya, and Sudra. This classification exists universally in every society, government, organization or group. Brahmins are those individuals that have a guna combination of sattva, rajas, tamas (in that order) and make up the segment of society that comes up with ideas, concepts and discoveries (scientists, philosophers and the like). Kshatriyas have the guna combination of rajas, sattva and tamas and are the leaders, the ones that take on the task of bringing ideas to fruition (politicians, military commanders, CEOs, etc). Vaishyas are driven by the guna combination of rajas, tamas and sattva, and excel at finding resources for the project (economists, financial planners, fundraisers, etc). Sudras with gunas combining in tamas, rajas and sattva are the workers, the ones that do the actual producing of results.

In the Vedic system, a person chose his “caste” according to his/her aptitude and type of work.  Thus, a Brahmin’s son could become a warrior (Kshatriya), a Sudra’s son a Brahmin, etc based on one’s personal aptitute driven by gunas, and according to the “ashrama” system.

Ashrama is the stage of life that along with guna and varna, will determine one’s unique dharma. Upto a certain age, everyone was a celibate student (Brahmacharya). Upon entering adulthood and finishing education (that was pretty equivalent for all, consisting of learning about the greater purpose of life and integration into society), most married and became householders (Grihastha). Once these duties were performed and children were raised, the householder left all material ties and retired to a quiet place for reflection (Vanaprastha), becoming celibate again. Finally, with further development of non-attachment, one entered the final stage of life (Sannyasa), renouncing everything and withdrawing inward.

In the context of guna, varna and ashram, it is easy to know what one’s dharma is. Thus, as a Brahmacharya (celibate student), one’s dharma is to study, to honor and obey the guru and parents and to direct all energies toward learning. Upon entering Grihastha ashrama, if one became a Kshatriya, one’s dharma was to first and foremost serve/protect and to lead by example, but also care for his family (since he would also be a Grihastha). If one had followed the ashrama system as it was designed, one would be ready to renounce material possessions when the time for Vanaprastha came.

In the context of the Mahabharata, Duryodhana was a king (therefore Kshatriya) and his dharma was to rule justly, to give the Pandavas the kingdom he had promised them before their exile. His dharma was to protect his people, not subject them to the horrors of war. However, (especially once the war was announced and particularly after the conches were blown), it was Arjuna’s dharma (also as a Kshatriya) to fight against injustice. To not fight would be adharma (opposite of dharma) for him and akin to “sin”. Throughout the Gita, Krishna emphasizes that swadharma (one’s own dharma) is far superior to paradharma (someone else’s dharma). As an example, premature renunciation of one’s family/life to retire into a life of contemplation (because someone else did that) would be adharma.

Even though knowledge of one’s gunas/varna/ashrama makes it somewhat easier to know what one’s dharma is, it is not always easy to follow it. Humans have the unique ability to choose or discriminate between what is right and what is pleasurable. A tiger does not wonder if it should kill for food and if that is the right thing to do. It is driven by instinct. We humans, on the other hand, are plagued with constant assessment and re-assessment of our thoughts and actions, heavily caught up in what we have learned to be right or wrong from our culture and upbringing. There is one part of us that knows what the right thing to do is; yet the other part that desires pleasure nags in an overpowering fashion. One adharmic action leads to one more and then one more and so on until we are lost in the perpetual war within. In every moment, opposing forces pull us in one direction or the other, in the form of self-judgment, jealousy and comparison to others, endless desire for “more” (more admiration and approval from others, more material wealth, more status, more fame…). The Bhagavad Gita is really about this war – Dharmakshetra, Kurukshetra.

On the spiritual path as well, it may not always be clear what our dharma is, at least initially. This is also true because as spiritual practices are taken up, there is continuous evolution in terms of the gunas; becoming more and more sattvic. This may (and does) result in a draw toward drastically different types of work/vocation and lifestyles to be in line with the inner transformation. Previously enjoyed work may not appeal so much as the need for external validations in terms of approval, fame, wealth and such falls away.  Also, the need for external reminders of our dharma in terms of guna/varna/ashrama lessens with surrendering to and trusting that which arises from deep within.

Dharma is not merely “should” or “should not” but the universal law that inherently benefits and upholds the whole, rather than the individual. Thus, any action undertaken with the motive of benefitting solely oneself is inherently adharmic. As one progresses along the path of yoga, the war within subsides and all thoughts and actions that arise become inherently dharmic, without a conscious choosing between what is right and what gives pleasure. Such actions of a perfected yogi benefit everyone around and he/she takes no personal credit for it.

Universal Desires, Reincarnation and Liberation

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

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The ashrama system based on guna + varna was designed to fulfill the four basic categories of desires of human life:

1. Dharma, the desire to lead a purposeful life and to contribute to society according to one’s gunas.
2. Artha, the desire for basic needs [food, shelter, clothing] and material wealth/resources.
3. Kama, the desire for fulfillment of sense pleasures – art, music, beauty, sexual union and so on.
4. Moksha, the desire for liberation, and transcending the other three classes of desires.

These four categories simply describe the universality of desires and in the context of the spiritual path, refer to the “pull” or the hold of desires upon us. And what each of us desires is dependent upon our unique matrix of vasanas (conditioning).

Vasana literally means fragrance. Quite simply put, a vasana is an impression left by a particular action that drives future actions. As an example, if I have less than a positive experience interacting with a particular person, all my future interactions will be colored by the impression left by that first unpleasant encounter. Over time, this becomes a subconscious impression, associating a certain “type” of negativity with this “type” of person. And all our interactions with that “type” of person consequently become subtly colored. This type of coloring arises from the combination of: the faculty of memory plus the emotional component of feeling a certain way plus cultural/familial conditioning of what “should” or “should not” happen (“so-and-so should do such-and-such” and so on). Thus we go about our lives driven by likes and dislikes, love and hate, greed and generosity and such polar opposites, continually at the mercy of our vasanas – deeply embedded impressions. And these impressions do not reside only at the level of the mind – to understand this further, we will need to see about reincarnation, without which the understanding of vasanas is incomplete.

Vasanas are a result of impressions not only from this lifetime, but also of previous lifetimes. Death is applicable only to the physical body. At the time of death, the soul or Atman simply departs from the body that is no longer fit for it to inhabit (for various reasons). All impressions from this lifetime, which are “stored” in the causal body go into the pool or “bank” of impressions from all past lives. After a period of time spent in non-physical planes, the soul decides to take another birth (reincarnate). Why? To exhaust the vasanas that drive all desires. The soul decides what “set” of vasanas to exhaust in the next life, and along these lines, chooses the parents, the family, the culture and the community to be born into. If the chosen set of  vasanas are exhausted in that life without accumulating new ones, there is no further reason to live in that body and death is the logical conclusion. And another set of vasanas is chosen to exhaust (from the very vast “bank” accumulated over innumerable lifetimes) and another life chosen..

The fruits (results or consequences, including the good, the bad and the ugly) of all actions and their associated impressions (vasanas) across all lifetimes makes up the “bank” of karma known as sanchita karma. What is picked out of this bank to work off in a particular lifetime is called prarabdha karma. Accumulation of more vasanas in a particular lifetime (instead of exhausting it all) results in agami karma, that gets added to sanchita karma. When does this end? When one becomes desireless. How? Through moksha.

Moksha or liberation is what gets us out of this endless loop of birth and death altogether. The result of moksha is the state of desirelessness. Moksha or liberation quite simply, is to know one’s true (divine) nature. This is not secular knowledge gained through books, but experiential knowing that is beyond the mind and intellect. With very few exceptions, moksha can be attained only during a human birth, which is why being born human is considered a great privilege and an opportunity not to be wasted. According to Vedic philosophy, human evolution mandates that all desires must be, and necessarily, are fulfilled in the particular order of dharma, artha, kama and moksha. For example, a person starving of hunger craves for food, not Van Gogh’s art or Mozart’s music. Yet, when one has fulfilled basic needs of food and shelter, there is a natural pull or drive for material success and recognition, and for gratification of sense pleasures. Thus, unless one’s basic needs are met, they cannot be asked to meditate or to desire transcendence. Similarly, someone driven by ambition to “make it” in the corporate world will find neither the time nor the interest to discover the deeper purpose of human life (moksha). Additionally, moksha cannot be attained unless one has experienced the other three to a certain degree.

Importantly, all vasanas must be exhausted within the context of one’s dharma in order to progress to moksha. Adharma results in further enmeshment in the continuous loop of vasanas, with moksha being lower and lower on the “list” of desires to be fulfilled. Desires also fall into categories of gunas; desires driven by a very dense matrix of vasanas tend to be tamasic and progressively become rajasic as the vasanas are exhausted. Following one’s dharma on a continuous basis results in a loosening of sorts from the vasana driven birth/death loop, the mind and psyche becoming progressively prepped for the sattvic desire of moksha. While this progression is something we must all go through, the timeline for this progression is different for each of us, occurring over many lifetimes. Thus, somebody extraordinary like Ramakrishna Paramahamsa or Ramana Maharishi may seem to have jumped right to moksha, but that is simply because they have been through the previous stages in previous lifetimes.

Arjuna (symbolizing us spiritual seekers) has come to this sacred battleground (Dharmakshetra) “ripe” for moksha. He has followed his dharma, has accomplished much in his life being a superb/decorated warrior with no wanting for wealth (artha), and has enjoyed all sense pleasures to his heart’s content (kama). At this juncture, it is clear that all his prior accomplishments were necessary but transient, and that they have not succeeded in erasing the war within. This inner conflict is the greatest gift of human life, that which can be harnessed to leave behind the drama of the birth-death cycle.


The Thing About Desire

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

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In the last post in the Living the Bhagavad Gita series, we saw that no matter who we are, our desires are fall into one of the four universal categories. We also saw that as we move from tamas to rajas to sattva, there is a simultaneous and related movement to moksha, the attainment of which leads to desirelessness.

This whole discussion brings up a very relevant and often misunderstood concept, of being desire “less”. Understanding this concept is necessary in order to grok the true meaning of yoga, be it in the context of karma yoga, bhakti yoga or jnana yoga. How can we possibly act without desire? Action arises from desire. In fact, the entire cosmos arises from desire. Desire is what drives us to get out of bed, to get ready for bed, to go to work, raise children and all of the things we do over lifetimes. However, when we talk about desirelessness being the result of liberation, we will first need to understand what is so undesirable about desire.

The quality that degrades desire to being undesirable is that of attachment. When we act out of attachment to a specific outcome, we become enchained to the action-thought-emotion complex arising as a result of that attachment. Let us take a common example – say I am a long-term employee of a corporation. I have invested my life-blood into this company, and am finally qualified for a big promotion. As soon as I find out I am in the running, my entire focus as a person, my self-image seems to miraculously rest on it. As the announcement draws closer, I begin to think of all the ways my life will change in this new position. I feel much of my thought process during the day being drawn to it, and begin to daydream about the bigger salary, the new car I can buy, the debts I can repay, the long-awaited vacation I can take. At night, I find myself unable to sleep, thinking about the other possibility – what if I do not get it? How will I show “face”? How can the company do this (hypothetically)? Is there no value for loyalty? It is a shark-eat-shark world out there..

And so the day arrives, and I find that I did not make the cut. A younger, newer employee is given the position. What happens next? Every action arising from this initial attachment-driven desire is colored by my disappointment and resentment. My self-image goes for a toss and I feel humiliated. My mind goes haywire in thoughts of self-pity, the unfairness of it all, the pointlessness of working for this inhuman company (that only recently was seen with pride when the initial announcement was made) and how it should not have happened to “me”. Whether I stay on in the company or move on, the resentment from this incident will continue to color my thoughts and subsequent actions. In other words, I have created a strong vasana or impression. And this is how our lives are lived for the most part, between polarities of likes and dislikes, loves and hates, mine and not mine. Every action arising from such polarities creates more vasanas. And vasanas are what bind us to being limited and small.

What if, on the other hand, the scenario were different and I have cultivated the ability to live and act from a desireless state? I was up for a promotion. I acknowledged it and continued with my life, with no second thought given to it. I am completely okay whether I get it or not. It does not define my self-image, my self-worth,  my happiness or how I view the company or the world. Any outcome is welcomed, and day-to-day work is done for the mere joy of it. I find out I did not get the promotion, that a younger, newer employee made the cut. I seek out that person, genuinely congratulating and celebrating his new position. It is all as it should be. No vasana is created with this.

The difference between desire-driven and desirelessness is attachment. And this is Arjuna’s conundrum as well. He is so attached to the outcome of the war that it has led to depression and delusion, causing him to freeze. Ambition, rivalry, jealousy, anxiety, anger and even day-to-day stress is a result of attachment. Tamas has this attachment to the greatest degree. Sattva has the least attachment with the greatest degree of equanimity. Equanimity is to be completely okay with whatever results from a particular action. And equanimity is the first cousin of trust, that whatever happens is for our highest good.

How and where does this incredible trust come from? How do we deal with vasanas? We will see in subsequent posts.

The Evolution of Karma Yoga

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

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For students of the Gita, it can seem that karma, bhakti, dhyana and jnana are sort of separate “paths” leading to the Divine. One way to look at the central theme of the Gita is to closely examine karma yoga. Then, the other “paths” can be seen as those that transform or clean the lens through which karma yoga is examined.

As described previously, all of creation is made up of combinations of the three gunas – sattva, rajas and tamas. This is true also of our bodies, minds, and intellects. The progression of karma yoga (action) occurs through evolution of our minds (thought forms) from tamas to rajas to sattva. This progression, in reality, is a steady “lightening” (gross to subtle, i.e., tamas to sattva) of identification with the “I” and “my”. However, for self-realization to occur, all identification (no matter how sattvic) needs to be dropped.

1. Prescribed as a way to overcome the duality of likes and dislikes, karma yoga is understood to be “selfless service”. Entire organizations have been built around this understanding, springing from yoga studios to ashrams to high-tech companies. This is the mainstay of volunteering anywhere, to “give back”, a movement from tamasic to rajasic actions.

It is possible to get stuck in this for a whole lifetime (or many lifetimes). This type of practice by itself will not accelerate an aspirant’s progress, since the veils obscuring the realization of the Self are made up of vasanas – deeply embedded impressions resulting from past actions that determine and drive all present and future actions. One can continue to volunteer without care for personal likes and dislikes (the “essence” of vasanas), but this tactic works only upto a certain layer or veil. Sooner or later, one is led to other practices – bhakti, jnana and dhyana (meditation and allied practices).

It is interesting to examine our own motives and actions up to this point. In my own life, I have come to see that absolutely no “selfless” act was ever totally selfless. Whether it was volunteering time, effort, or resources, I was stuck being the “helper” or that this would generate “good karma” (aka, punya karma in Sanskrit). Even the most noble of all of life’s gifts, parenting, was not entirely selfless – I was busy being a good parent so I could feel good about being a good parent. Yes, of course, there may be an element of selflessness in wanting our families’ well-being, but, the attachment to “I” is what dominates all decision-making.

2. The next stage of karma yoga is coming into bhakti or dhyana (or jnana for the ripe few). In attaching to a higher ideal/ishta, we start to give up the root cause of all afflictions of Maya – “I-ness”. As described so beautifully in Chapters III and IV (more about this later), gradually, one starts to give up the notions of doership (kartattvam) and enjoyership (bhoktattvam), with a firm faith that the Ishta is the doer, and also the enjoyer of all actions.

With this, there is a subtle yet discernable shift in the practice of karma yoga – a tangible attenuation of the selfish selflessness… But, now the identity has shifted from being a karma yogi to being a bhakta (“I am the devotee that is allowing my Ishta be the doer/enjoyer”). The subtle shift in the practice of karma yoga (a movement toward sattvic actions) happens in parallel with the subtle shift in identification (aka, spiritual ego).

Here is another place one can be stuck in. We can totally forget that surrender means to let go of it all – all control, all identities.. I’ve spent decades being a devotee of my Ishta (yes, the “I” and “my” are glaring here), looking for all the ways that I could be a better devotee, performing austerities and rituals, all the while expecting spiritual progress (after all, if I give, shouldn’t my Ishta give something in return?)

3. Dhyana yoga or meditative practices greatly accelerate the progression through these stages, by getting to the deeper veils/vasanas directly, transforming our thoughts and actions to becoming more and more sattvic. However, these practices by themselves don’t work either (for most of us), simply because most of us tend to be rajasic by nature, and need to act.

And even as we are attenuating the vasanas and letting go, there can be an even subtler “collection” of spiritual identity markers – now we are the meditators, the yogis, the ones that have all sorts of cool experiences, the ones that do the astral travel or heal remotely, the ones that “choose our actions wisely”, etc etc. And many spiritual traditions consider this identification to be the hardest to discard – because at this stage, we become the ones that know everything.. In terms of karma yoga evolution, one has simply gone from being the tamasic or rajasic helper to a sattvic helper. But one is very much still the helper.

Tamas, rajas or sattva – ultimately it doesn’t matter since they are all still within the realm of Maya.

4. And by sheer Grace, the aspirant (aka, karma yogi, bhakta, and/or meditator) is led to ask the question of all questions – who is this “I” that is doing this? And by sheer Grace alone, that inquiry or jnana leads to finally looking behind the veils, to seeing that he/she is not the doer, and has never been. All identities are dropped, and there is no longer a “helper” and a “helpee”, no longer the karma yogi, the devotee or the meditator – karma, bhakti and jnana merge into a single path and a single moment, the present one. The actions that arise from this are in perfect alignment with what is. There is no more involvement of the dualistic, conditioned mind in conflict with itself – “Should I do this?” “What will happen if I do this?” “Who will be affected by my actions?”, “What will be the consequences if I peform this action?”, etc.

In dropping all identifications made up of the three gunas, the jnani or sthithaprajna (realized sage) goes beyond the body, mind and intellect (BG II 54-72).

Each of us will progress through these (necessary) stages in our own, unique ways, coming into karma, bhakti, dhyana and jnana in any order. What seemed like separate paths to God merge into the single present moment of Being.


Action and Inaction, Doing and Nondoing

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

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On the path of karma yoga, the crux of existence comes down to how we perform actions at any given moment. On the surface, the journey is always from here to here, as Yogani wisely says. However, this path is very often convoluted, and takes unexpected turns and twists despite our best intentions to “do” karma yoga. In these twists, we come to understand first-hand the true meaning of nondoing in doing and inaction in action as explained in the Gita.

Once the process of unfolding begins, it takes its own uncharted course. For me, that course has been a deep dive into the subtle and causal bodies, coming to rest often in ever deepening pools of stillness and peace. Sinking here in meditation, there is a freezing of the body in a paralysis-like state often associated with cessation of breath and loss of consciousness. Coming out of it, there is deep peace untouched by any activity going on around me. This “state” frequently wafts into daily activities where there is a sort of jarring out of a deep reverie wondering what I’m doing or why I’m there, amidst conversations or other activity. Thoughts, sensations and emotions are seen like passing clouds and bubbles, not touching the deep stillness. This is all associated with a loss of drive and ambition, related most likely to loss of fear and anxiety around being “someone” with specific qualifications or achievements, title or status. The deep peace pervades the waking, dreaming and deep sleep states, unshakeable and groundless. Increasingly, it is difficult to relate to the rat-race of the marketplace – not particularly conducive to one with a busy career and family.

This phase appears to be quite common. I was discussing this with a dear friend, Anurag Jain, a wise yogi, fellow-lover of the Gita and founder of Neev Forum for Integral Living. In his characteristic and unassuming fashion, he asked me what I thought about Krishna’s words in the 4th chapter (4:16), where he discloses the secret of karma yoga – inaction in action. Like a complicated lock falling into place with the right key, I immediately “got” what he was referring to.

As discussed here, the evolution of karma yoga involves losing identity as the doer of action. And this evolution requires the additional yogas of bhakti and/or jnana. With deepening self-inquiry, one dives into the subtle and causal bodies, with a shift in identification from the limited body-mind to a greater, non-localized sense of being. The distinctions between “inside” the body and “outside” blur and fade and this shift is often accompanied by subtle and not-so-subtle movements of Shakti (energy), intuitive openings and a growing sense of “knowingness”. The sense of doership simultaneously fades, since the sense of being is no longer associated with this particular body-mind. Most traditions talk primarily about this part of the journey; to see that we are not the limited body-mind. And this is where many can get stuck, as I’ve experienced. The bliss and deep peace of being are so vast and all-encompassing that there is no compelling need to “do” anything (since I’m not the doer anyway). Engaging in the world becomes difficult and a chore. It takes supreme effort to be interested in clothes and cars and titles and statuses and paychecks and who-is-doing-what.

The conundrum is this – many of us are prompted to enter the spiritual path after we have established careers and long-term goals and have committed to partners and family. And we never count on drastic changes that can (and do) occur on this path; of phases of craving solitude more than anything, of deep confusion and pain of the so-called “dark night of the soul”, of the terror and fears that surface as the subconscious mind is churned, of the need to stand and face oneself and one’s own perceived utter failures and disappointments and to own it all. We assume that the spiritual path will make us holy and serene like in the pictures; moreover, our family members assume these qualities for us – and thus, we are all shocked when we are less than holy or serene at times. Mostly, we do not count on going so deep within that the surface ripples do not even touch us – we certainly do not count on losing the identity as the doer and what that really means in the context of a busy life.

Going from doing to nondoing is only half the journey. The other half involves returning once again to doing. But this time, the doing is different, for while it appears that one is doing, he/she does nothing at all and the action flows through him/her. Life and its processes become the Sri Yantra – stillness of the Bindu amidst dynamic activity of the intersecting triangles. In this (necessary for many) hiatus resulting from this shift of identity to not being the doer, the only thing to do is to surrender all vestiges of personal will. And to submit to Shakti to use this body-mind in any way She chooses. Inaction in action is this exactly – just like the heart and the digestive system work without volition, external actions also just happen with this body-mind being the vehicle for it without any personal ownership of it all. How long this “return journey” will take, I do not know.

Yet, there is a deep trust in the process and in Her. For it is now evident that the secret to inaction in action is surrender.

What do you really, really want? (A dialogue)

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

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Question: I have been on this spiritual quest for many years and have a working understanding of liberation. I have read all the books, listened to all the satsangs and yet feel it is all still in the mind. What is missing?

Response: Well, the real question is this – what do you really, really, really want?

Question: To go back home, to the Source. But I’m not ready to give up the phenomenal world either. Does this need to be given up?

Response: Nothing needs to be given up or run away from to see that you are already home. However, a critical element on the spiritual path is absolute self-honesty. And this has to do with unabashed examination of what one really wants out of life and this path. There are  no right or wrong answers, and all desires are perfectly valid.

Often, it may be difficult to discern what we really want, especially on the spiritual path. The mind is such an intelligent apparatus that its own true motives are often hidden well from its conscious awareness. We might consciously state and feel that liberation is what we want, when in reality there may be several other “objectives” we are desiring to accomplish. And these objectives can be highly sattvic – of wanting to serve, to be more spiritual, to become more knowledgeable about all things spiritual, to play with energy, to fit into certain (spiritual) circles, to improve our lives through spirituality, to become a better person and on and on. The human psyche is such that these other agendas, when present, overshadow the desire for liberation. Moreover, as long as there are deep desires that are unfulfilled, they will always take precedence over everything else – the desires for love (romantic, platonic, parental, etc) and acceptance, for example, are usually so strong that we can spend many lifetimes seeking those in the guise of liberation. Hence, in the ashrama system, moksha (liberation) comes last in the classification of universal desires. Moksha cannot be first on anyone’s list if their basic needs are not met and deep desires are not fulfilled.

Another predicament of modern spirituality is how liberation or enlightenment is defined. “Enlightenment” seems to mean different things to different people. Some declare enlightenment to be the ability to commune with higher beings or exhibit special powers. Some call the arising of energy to be enlightenment. Some others call all higher thinking to be “enlightened” thinking. Yet, liberation is quite simple – to see the real nature of the “I”. What prevents us from seeing this in the first place? It is merely the constant pull of the senses and the mind to external objects and how those objects relate to our identity as this person. So, what do desires have to do with this? All desires center around the “I”, even when they seem to be altruistic. Even the desire for knowledge centers around the “I” obtaining this knowledge. Thus, all attention is diverted to external objects (say, knowledge), and the subject is inadvertently and totally ignored. Eventually, desires thin out and we finally turn our attention to the subject – this is called the indirect path. On the other hand, attention to the subject, (the “I”) and inquiring into its nature is called the direct path since all external objects are ignored in favor of curiosity about this “I”. However, what the direct path demands is that we let go of all external objects, including the need for (and of any acquired) spiritual knowledge. On one path, we will acquire more and more – of knowledge, of spiritual status and of spiritual “garb”. On the other, we will lose it all. The key to the leap from the indirect to the direct path is whether or not there are other conflicting desires. Unfulfilled and/or unrelished desires lead to fear and anxiety about not having something and/or losing it once it is had. Fear leads to clinging (albeit subconsciously) to the person we think we are and to the state of “delusion” described in the Bhagavad Gita (BG 2:62-63).

The truth is that all beings long for happiness. This happiness is sought in objects until they no longer wield their power over us. Until then, we will be rewarded with whatever our soul most deeply desires. In the Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna declares, “in whatever way men approach Me, in that way will I appear to them” (BG 4:11). Thus, we try to find Him (in the form of happiness) in wealth, fame, spiritual seeking, knowledge and so on – in every case, He gives us Himself in that form (wealth, fame, seeking, knowledge..). The beauty of human life is that we “worship” whatever we seek with constant attention and surrender to it wholly, letting it takeover our hearts and minds (BG 4:12). When the attraction to all external objects fades from exhaustion/fulfillment or burning of the unfulfilled desires through the Grace of tapas, we will come to worship the subject and surrender to it. And in this surrender, the transition occurs from the indirect to the direct path. Here, sadhana begins in earnest.

With absolute self-honesty, we can ask and open to be shown what our deepest desires and agendas may be. As these desires are fulfilled and/or exhausted, the desire for liberation becomes more transparent and earnest, and finally stands as the sole objective. It is then ripe for recognizing that which had always been present but had merely been obscured. We discover that we have never left home.

Surrender.. A tale of birds and snakes

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

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The central theme of all spiritual traditions is surrender, the giving up of this person that we think we are. It can be said that surrender is the central theme of the Bhagavad Gita as well; again and again, Arjuna is instructed to surrender his will to the Divine (Krishna). Yet, the concept of surrender is volatile and often misunderstood. Importantly, it is the most challenging (and therefore a significant) movement on the spiritual quest. The body, mind and intellect are what we think we are, and these obscure the inner divine light effectively and often totally. At each level, there is a strong sense of individuality, of being a person in control of life and its circumstances, as well as relationships with others and with God. This strong sense of individuality arises from upbringing, values instilled by caregivers and prevalent culture, life experiences that “teach” us to love or hate, to accept or reject, to be strong or timid, to choose this over that, and so on. All along, we have the strong sense that it is “me” that is choosing or doing out of my own “personal free will”. Yet, there is hardly anything “free” about this will, since every choice made is dependent upon a cascade of circumstances that can (if one would want to) be traced all the way to infanthood (and beyond).

Every action has infinite possibilities in terms of outcomes; yet, we ardently hope for one single outcome that is based on our experience of desirable and undesirable. When the outcome is what we had hoped for, we are temporarily satisfied (until the next expectation comes along, as it surely will). When it is not, we are filled with disappointment, regret, resentment and ill-will. This is how we live our lives on a moment-to-moment basis, each moment colored by expectations of the next and based on the experience of the last.

And then we arrive on the spiritual path and take up practices and studying. Here too, the active issue is of control; specific outcomes are expected from sadhana. Practices and spiritual studies are taken up with certain goals; we remain fixated on these goals in a rigid sort of way, happy when a prescribed milestone is reached and disappointed when our experience differs from it. When it comes to surrender, we can misunderstand it to be passive and that no effort is necessary on our part at all. However, because we have become experts at efforting and expecting, such giving up becomes frustratingly impossible. On the other hand, we may tap into tamasic qualities of inertia and laziness and think this is surrender. In fact, the relationship between self-effort and surrender is one of the hardest concepts to grok on the spiritual path; both effort and surrender are necessary, and this is the entire basis of karma yoga.

The surrender that is required is of the active quality. All efforts arising from our passionate desire for God are consecrated to God. And this consecration is an art that has to be perfected along with non-attachment and equanimity. Surrender can never be perfect if there is attachment to a specific outcome or aversion to another. Thus, we perform actions and continue with sadhana with utmost sincerity and engagement, but we are deeply okay with whatever the outcome may be. Why? Because any outcome is the most obvious evidence of Divine Will (all our choices and actions also arise from Divine Will, but the impurities of identification with the body-mind-intellect obscures the seeing of its role until a later stage). For active surrender, this “okay-ness” needs to be at a level that is much deeper than the mind. It must permeate our physical and subtle bodies; our very cells must be bathed in this okay-ness for it to be active surrender. There can be no hope for anything that is not aligned with the greater will. Thus, we acknowledge the desire that drives an action and give it up with an affirmation for it to occur if it is Divine Will. When this giving up occurs at the aforementioned deepest layers, there is an unmistakable release and relaxation. Although Divine Will will determine the outcome anyway, the acknowledgment of the desire and it’s concomitant release make it an active movement. Miraculously, such a practice (known as samyama) results in dissolving of our will into the Divine Will.

This practice, as difficult and imperfect as it is, has been the most beautiful aspect of my sadhana. Over the years, my life (like that of others who practice this) has become a steady stream of miracles. One such incident occurred on a trip to Costa Rica. More than any other wildlife of this lush country, I wished to see the Resplendent Quetzal, a magnificent bird with vivid colors and a long two-feathered tail. As we toured the cloud forests of Monteverde, our many hours spent for one glimpse of this highly elusive bird were in vain. On daily guided tours, we saw every other species of native birds except the quetzal. On our last day in the region, we took a self-guided tour of one last rainforest but the ranger at the ticket booth warned us not to expect to see a quetzal because of unfavorable weather conditions that day. Disappointed, I trekked along, hoping against hope that it might still happen. Halfway through the tour, I suddenly felt the desire dissolving fully, knowing without a doubt that if it was Divine Will to see one, it would happen; it was no longer “my” concern. In a brilliant inner flash of release, there was a whoosh of relaxation down to the bones along with immense peace and joy of just being. The quetzal was forgotten and the magic of the forest captured my attention and heart. A half hour later, a male quetzal alighted on a tree branch right next to us in a glorious flash of blue-green. As we gaped, a female (with shorter feathers) joined its mate and the two remained preening on the branch for a while and flew away just as a group of people approached (they had to see the above picture to believe it). Tears streamed down my face and I was humbled beyond belief. Two days later and on our very last day in the country, I felt that our trip could not be complete without seeing a large snake. We had seen several varieties of smaller ones, but not a big one. Again, this desire was surrendered in a big release and a sense of being totally okay with not seeing one. Minutes later, we were strolling down to breakfast at the forest resort as a guide ran up asking us to hurry – a python had been spotted nearby and it was feeding. We rushed to the spot and watched the strikingly gorgeous creature finish its meal and leisurely make its way into the bush. This beautiful country had been my guru for this valuable lesson in surrender.

In every moment, we can dive into this practice of active surrender. We can put in the effort and simultaneously call for Grace to release all “my-ness” from it and to pour our stubborn will into the fire of Divine Will. The prerequisites for this are inner silence and unwavering faith in the Divine. We have to know (not merely believe) that nothing in the cosmos occurs outside of Divine Will. Our effort, our path, our life and its saga, world events – all these are intricate parts of the cosmos, which moves as a whole according to Divine Will. Any action performed by anyone anywhere moves the whole in a specific direction, all of it dictated by this Will. No action is isolated and affects seen and unseen sentient beings and events in orchestrated ways. By no means is this a fatalistic predetermination, for every action has infinite possibilities in terms of outcomes; all these possibilities and their resultant cascades of outcomes are contained within Divine Will.

In fact, the very movement of surrender is a sanction of Grace and of this all-encompassing Will.