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The first chapter of the Gita is called Arjuna Vishada Yoga – the Yoga of Arjuna’s Vishada. The word vishada is translated variously as melancholy, sorrow, grief, depression, despondency, sadness, misery and so on.
We just saw in the last article how Arjuna surrendered to melancholy, dropped his bow and arrows and collapsed into his chariot telling Krishna he will not fight, he finds no point in fighting and killing, no point in winning the kingdom, no point in pleasures or even in life itself. Kim no rajyena govinda, kim bhogair jeevitena vaa, he asks: “What good is the kingdom, Krishna, and what good are pleasures or life itself?”
All over the world today there is a lot of discussion about depression which is fast spreading and assuming the form of a wild fire that can consume everything. I was part of the faculty team giving an intensive training programme for doctors at XLRI School of Business and Human Resources and we were having a pre-programme dinner when the topic of depression came up. Several professors felt depression is fast becoming the most dangerous problem the world is facing today with a large number of lives claimed every day. This was of course in the days before the covid-19 pandemic.
Bright young people seem to be particularly susceptible to depression. In his bestselling book The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology, Shawn Achor speaks about depression in Harvard University where happiness was the subject of his research for several years. Achor says “despite all its magnificent facilities, a wonderful faculty, and a student body made up of some of America’s (and the world’s) best and brightest, it is home to many chronically unhappy young men and women. In 2004, for instance, a Harvard Crimson poll found that as many as 4 in 5 Harvard students suffer from depression at least once during the school year, and nearly half of all students suffer from depression so debilitating they can’t function.” Shawn Achor then goes on to say that “This unhappiness epidemic is not unique to Harvard. A Conference Board survey released in January of 2010 found that only 45 percent of workers surveyed were happy at their jobs, the lowest in 22 years of polling. Depression rates today are ten times higher than they were in 1960. Every year the age threshold of unhappiness sinks lower, not just at universities but across the nation. Fifty years ago, the mean onset age of depression was 29.5 years old. Today, it is almost exactly half that: 14.5 years old.”
Speaking about depression, the Himalayan monk Om Swami says in his book When All Is Not Well: Depression and Sadness:
“Depression isn’t just sadness. It is emptiness, it is misery. It is pain and nothingness at once. When you are truly depressed, you lack the ability or will to cheer yourself up. No one just ‘has depression’. You suffer from it.”
Continuing, Om Swami explains what depression feels like. “You will wake at 5, 6, maybe 7 a.m., feeling as though you had only just fallen asleep... If you don’t have to be somewhere, you could lie in bed for another three hours; too tired, too miserable and pathetic to crawl out of your bed. Or maybe you will sleep until 1 p.m., because it’s so much easier to sleep through most of the day than actually live it, and you’re so unbelievably tired anyway. You will push through the day, knowing that every hour will be a struggle and not knowing how you will feel tomorrow. People will ask what is wrong, and you will simply smile and say, ‘Nothing, I’m just tired.’ ...You will spend your days not only lost in the haze of depression, but your mind will be so consumed with these thoughts of escaping and self-destruction that you think you could explode…”
But the important question is why so many people are feeling depressed today. Why is depression spreading across the world like a deadly epidemic today?
The reasons are not too difficult to find. For one thing, our life has become too fast. We are obsessed with speed – in real life as well as in virtual life. We have become intolerant of slowness. And stillness? Of course, we have grown strangers to it. We have forgotten that all that is beautiful in life comes from stillness. Creativity comes from stillness. Intuition comes from stillness. Art and music come from stillness. The essence of dance is not movement but the stillness that is its substratum, from which arises and into which it goes back. All inventions and discoveries are made in moments of stillness. Intuition comes from stillness, insights come from stillness, healing comes from stillness. Medical professionals have long recognized that silence plays an important part in healing. For instance, the experience of even a little real silence can produce physiological changes that neutralize the effects of stress.“When you are still, you find that your perception of life is at its purest,” says Ron Rothbun in his book The Way Is Within.
We are all familiar with the story of Archimedes who ran through the streets of Athens shouting eureka, eureka.
The Athenian ruler had given him an assignment. Someone had gifted the ruler a crown and he wanted to find out if the crown was of pure gold or some alloy had been mixed with the gold. The specific gravity of gold was known then, but no one knew how to measure the mass of an irregular object like the crown. Archimedes was the best scientist of the day and he struggled for weeks to find a solution to the problem. If only there was a way to measure the mass of the crown! Then you could decide whether the crown was pure gold or not.
Eventually Archimedes gave up his struggles admitting defeat and sank into a tub for a relaxed bath. It was then, in that moment when there were not struggles in his mind and the mind had become still with his acceptance of defeat, that he noticed water spilling over from the tub as his body sank into the tub. That very instant insight was born, a great discovery happened: the quantity of water that spilled out was equal to the volume of his body that had submerged in the water.
The quantity of water that flows out when a substance is immersed in a vessel full of water is equal to the volume of the substance immersed.
In that still moment, his problem had been solved and climbing out of the tub he ran through the streets of Athens shouting that word that has now become part of every language in the world: eureka, eureka!
We all have had the experience of something, a name, we had forgotten coming back to us the moment we give up the struggles and the mind becomes still.
All science and all technology is the product of still moments. All that is precious to humanity are products of inner stillness, of the mind that is empty of restless thoughts. The saying that the empty mind is the devil’s workshop is completely wrong. The empty mind is God’s workshop!
Indian culture says the universe is born of God’s empty mind. The Taittiriya Upanishad says, “Sa tapo’tapyata. Sa tapas taptvaa idam sarvam asrjata. Yadidam kincha.” “He did tapas. Having done tapas, he created all this. He created all that exists.” It is from the mind of God that has become empty because of tapas that the universe comes into being.
There is story told about the world famous painter Raphael and an unknown woodcutter. One morning as the woodcutter was going to the forest to cut wood, he saw Raphael sitting by a lake, lazily picking up pebbles and dropping them into the lake. The woodcutter shook his head in disapproval – what a waste of time! – and went on his way. As the woodcutter was returning home with his load of firewood, he saw Raphael still sitting there picking up pebbles and throwing them into the lake! What an idiot, he thought! I have done a whole day’s work and the moron is still sitting there and throwing pebbles into the lake!
We know today that such a woodcutter existed because of Raphael, one of the greatest painters the world has known.
In the ancient Indian tradition, in fact all over the world, we began everything with a few moments of silence, of mental stillness, of prayer. But today stillness, and even slowness, is looked down upon. It is one of the greatest casualties of the age of speed.
The virtues of slowness are unlimited, says Carl Honore in his book In praise of slowness. In his book Slowing Down to the Speed of Life, Richard Carlson says more or less the same thing. And it is that slowness that we have rejected in favour of speed! Faster, faster, ever faster, says our culture!
Slowing down and experiencing stillness is one of our basic needs – it is as essential as breathing. Our brains go completely haywire unless we experience slowness and stillness on a regular basis. Which is exactly what is not happening today. And that is taking a heavy toll on young minds today, especially gifted young minds, leading to depression and all that depression leads to. The philosophy aaraam hai haraam has to go. Laziness is bad, sluggishness is bad, sloth and apathy are bad, but relaxation is not. It is the most healing thing most of us know, apart from sleep. In fact sleep is a form of relaxation too. The second highest form of relaxation, after meditation which is the highest form of relaxation in existence.
We need to spend more time ‘plucking daisies’, we need to spend more time climbing mountains, we need to spend more time unfocused and in ‘purposeless’ activities, like Raphael picking up pebbles and throwing them into the lake. We need to give our souls time to catch up with us. That is the medicine for fighting the insane obsession with speed that drives us away from our own calm inner centre.
A European explorer was in the Amazon forests, exploring the flora and fauna there. He had hired a supervisor and the supervisor had hired native people to help him in his work. One day passed the explorer and the natives hurrying from one thing to another, then another day and then yet another day. On the fourth day when the explorer was ready to start he found not one native was ready. When enquired, the supervisor gave him an incredibly beautiful reply. He told the explorer: they are giving time for their souls to catch up with them!
We all need to give time for our souls to catch up with us.
One of the most beautiful Chuang Tzu stories ever says:
The prince discovered when he returned from the top of the mountain that he had mislaid the Priceless Pearl up on the mountain.
He sent his generals and their armies to search for it, but they could not find it. He employed Huang-Ti, the vehement debater, to find the Pearl, but Huang-Ti was unable to find it. He sent his skilled gardeners and his artisans to find it, but they too came home empty-handed.
Finally, in despair, having tried everyone else, he sent Purposeless to the mountain, and Purposeless found the pearl immediately.
"How odd it is", mused the Prince, "that it was Purposeless who found it!"
We are all birds meant to fly in the open sky. Those who have known the truth, the Upanishad rishis for instance, call us amritasya putraah – children of the Immortal, each one of us a divine spark. The Mundaka Upanishad tells us: yathaa sudeeptaat paavakaad visphulingaah sahasrashah prabhavante saroopaah, tathaa aksharaad vividhaah somya bhaavaah prajaayante tatra chaivaapi yanti: Just as sparks in their thousands are born from a roaring fire, each of the same nature as the fire itself, so do, dear one, beings come forth from the Imperishable One and return to It. [Mu.Up.2.1]
No, we are not meant to spend our lives hopping about on the ground searching for worms but to stretch out our wings, soar up and enjoy the bliss of the boundless skies – the boundless skies of consciousness. We are meant for the bhooma, the vast, and not for the alpa, the small. The owl will be satisfied with the rotting body of a mouse, but not the phoenix which will touch no food other than certain sacred fruits and drink only from the clearest springs. The chakora lives on moonbeams, says Indian mythology, and will touch nothing else. The way man lives today is like the phoenix being forced to live on rotten mice and the chakora being forced to live on the food that pigs eat.
By and large, man has forgotten the higher. We have become flotsams with no roots in our spiritual selves. We are living not the philosophy of the rising son as we did in the past but the philosophy of the setting sun. Frustration and depression are bound to be there.
As we saw, the vishada that happened to Arjuna in the battlefield is called by different names such as melancholy, sorrow, grief, depression, despondency, sadness, misery and so on
But there is a different name for it. India calls it vairagya, dispassion, and considers it sacred. Vairagya is the first step in the journey to the east, the journey to the land where the sun rises, the journey to the source of all light. Light as bright as the light of a thousand suns, light before which all other lights pale.
There is mantra that is traditionally chanted when we do arati, ritually show burning lamps before a sacred idol. Na tatra sooryo bhaati na chandrataarakam nemaa vidyuto bhaanti kutoyam agnih; tam eva bhaantam anubhaaati saravam tasya bhaasaa sarvam idam vibhaati, says the mantra. “The sun does not shine there, nor the moon or the stars. How then will this fire? That alone shines and everything else shines after it, reflecting its light.” The journey to that source of all light begins with what Arjuna is experiencing now and that is why India considers vairagya sacred.
This is something that happens only to sensitive people. Much of the time the kind of questions Arjuna asks, the feelings Arjuna feels, come to us from a great shower of blessing that descends upon us. It is ishwra-anugraha, the grace of God, says India.
The rishi of the Svetashvatara Upanishad declares boldly and unhesitatingly:
vedaaham etam purusham mahaantam aaditya-varnam tamasam parastaat;
tam eva viditvaa atimrtyum eti naanyah panthaa vidyate'yanaaya. Sv. Up. 3.8
“I know the Great Purusha, He who is luminous like the sun and beyond darkness.
Only by knowing Him does one go beyond death. There is no other path worth travelling!”
Vairagya is the invitation to begin our journey on the only path worth travelling.
It is not only Arjuna who has grace showered on him as he stands in the chariot driven by Krishna in the middle of the two armies in Kurukshertra, but all of us, the entire humanity. Because it is in response to this vairagya he felt that the Bhagavad Gita was born on a shukla paksha ekadashi day, on the eleventh day of the bright lunar fortnight in the month of Margashirsha, more than five thousand and one hundred years ago.
A well known story from the Mahabharata says that both Arjuna and Duryodhana went to meet Krishna seeking his help before the war began. Duryodhana was the first to enter Krishna’s bed chamber and he went and took a seat by the head of the bed. A few moments later Arjuna entered the chamber and he too could have gone and taken a seat at the head of the bed as Duryodhana had done. Instead, he went and stood at Krishna’s feet. When Krishna opened his eyes a few moments later it was naturally Arjuna who was standing at the foot of the bed that he saw first. As we all know, it was on him that Krishna’s grace fell in the form of his presence with him during the war and as his driver.
Krishna is grace. The greatest possible grace! With Krishna on your side, the impossible becomes possible. With Krishna on your side miracles happen. Mookam karoti vaachaalam pangum landhayate girim, yat-kripaa tam aham vande parama-ananda-maadhavam, says one of the shlokas traditionally chanted before the study of the Gita: “I bow down to Krishna, who is supreme bliss itself, with whose grace the speechless become eloquent and the lame crosses over mountains.”
The choice that Arjuna made in Krishna’s bedchamber, rejecting the Narayani Sena, rejecting the power of a mighty army and choosing just Krishna, Krishna’s grace, it is that choice that is now showering on him in the form of the Bhagavad Gita. All we have to do is to make that choice, everything else happens by itself. That is why Krishna concludes his teachings in the Gita by saying:
sarvadharmaan parityajya maam ekam sharanam vraja; aham twaa sarvapaapebhyo mokshayishyaami maa shuchah BG 18.66
“Abandoning all dharmas, take refuge in me alone; I will liberate you from all sins. Have no grief.”
Duryodhana missed Krishna’s grace throughout his life. After the war was over, Gandhari curses Krishna saying he could have and should have helped her son but did not. But grace can shower on you only when you are open to it. If a pot remains upside down when the sky showers rains, not a drop will go inside even if an entire season passes. In fact, the only thing you need to deserve grace is openness to it, receptivity to it, which is what Duryodhana did not have. There were a thousand occasions in his life when he could have taken refuge in Krishna, but rejects every single one of them.
There is a famous Indian story about a beggar who was crossing a bridge, walking with a stick in hand. The story says that Goddess Parvati takes pity on the poor beggar and requests Shiva to bless him with wealth. Shiva says there is no point because even if he gives wealth to him, he will not get it because he is not open to his blessing. But the heart of the goddess is the heart of a mother and she insists that the man be given wealth. Shiva agrees and a treasure chest appears on the bridge. The moment the chest appears on the bridge, the beggar has a thought: “I am young now and I can see well, but what will happen to me when I grow old and lose my eyesight? I must practice walking blind right from now.” With that thought, he closes he eyes and walking with the help of the stick crosses the rest of the bridge, missing the treasure completely!
Throughout his life Duryodhana behaved like that beggar.
Whereas Arjuna chose Krishna lifetimes ago. The Mahabharata tells us they have been friends across lifetimes, meditating in the Himalayas together.
There is a mantra in the Mundaka Upanishad that my teacher Swami Dayananda Saraswati was very fond of. During the years when I was in the Sandeepany Gurukula and learning timeless Indian wisdom from him, he must have quoted this mantra hundreds of times.
pareekshya lokaan karmachitaan braahmano nirvedam aayaan naastyakrtah krtena tadvijnanartham sa gurum evabhigacched samitpaanih shrotriyam brahmanishtham. Mu.Up.1.2.12
“Having examined all in the world that is gained through actions, after attaining nirveda and realizing that the uncreated cannot be achieved through actions, let [him who has thus become] a brahmana, approach with samit in hand a guru who is learned [in the traditional spiritual lore] and rooted in the Brahman.”
The soul of the entire Indian spiritual culture could be found in that one mantra. Before approaching the guru and being qualified for his grace, we must developed nirveda towards all that can be attained through our own power, through our actions. Nirveda means vairagya – what Arjuna is experiencing at the moment. It is when this vairagya is born in your heart that you become a brahmana – one whose entire focus is on attaining the Brahman, one whose concentration now is only on attaining the spiritual goal. And then he should go to his guru with samit in hand. Samit is kindling used in sacrificial fire. Carrying that to your guru is the symbol of your joyful willingness to serve the master.
Duryodhana is still far from the nirveda the Upanishad talks about. He is not willing to surrender to Krishna and therefore is not ready for the grace. He has not yet developed what makes you a brahmana – the all consuming urge to abandon everything else and walk the path of shreyas to reach the land of the ultimate good, the land of light, having reached which you never return – yad gatvaa na nivartante. He is still very much with the loka of wealth, power, position, sensual pleasures and so on.
Arjuna has developed that urge and he is ready. That is why he is asking, “What good is the kingdom, Krishna, and what good are pleasures or life itself?” The vishada he is experiencing at the moment is the clear sign of that.
All vishadas, depressions, are not bad, some are good. Some depressions can take you to the higher. They come to you from divine grace. With them begins our journey to the east, the greatest journey we will ever make.
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