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Never was there a time when I existed not, or a time when you or these kings did not exist. Nor will there ever be a time when we shall cease to be. Just as in this body the self passes from childhood to youth and old age, so too after death it passes to another body. The intelligent do not grieve over this. 2.12-13
It was Ralph Waldo Emerson who called the Bhagavad Gita an empire of thought and said: "I owed a magnificent day to the Bhagavad Gita... it was as if an empire spoke to us, nothing small or unworthy, but large, serene, consistent, the voice of an old intelligence which in another age and climate had pondered and thus disposed of the same questions which exercise us.”
As Krishna begins his teachings, please keep in mind that his interest is not in teaching that the dead or the-not-yet-dead do not deserve to be grieved over. His interest is in teaching us that we are immortals.
As we have seen earlier, though the Gita is born in the context of the Mahabharata war, it is not about slaughtering enemies in the battlefield or winning victories over them. It is about winning the battle called life.
The Gita is about becoming winners in life, winners over ourselves. it is about rising above the asuri tendencies within us, about nurturing the daivi tendencies in us and eventually growing beyond both daivi and asuri tendencies. It is about waking up from the life we are dreaming, and waking up to life as it is, as it really is. It is about ending the dream in which we see ourselves as mortals, with limited life spans, limited intelligence, limited imagination, limited powers, limited competencies and limited capacity for happiness. It is about discovering the true us, discovering what we have been all through: immortals, whom weapons cannot cleave, fire cannot burn, water cannot moisten and the wind cannot dry up; eternal, all-pervading, beyond time, beyond names and forms, beyond the power of thought to grasp, beyond all changes; beyond the power of the mind to reach, which can be known through knowledge beyond all knowing, which can be felt only through the feeling beyond all feelings, which can be experienced only through the experience beyond all experiences.
There is a beautiful story about Zhuangzi [Chuang Tzu]. One morning the great Chinese saint of Tao told his disciples who had gathered to listen to him as usual:
“Last night I dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering hither and thither, conscious only of my happiness as a butterfly, unaware that I was Zhuangzi. Then I woke up and here I am, veritably myself again. Now I do not know whether I am a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming I am a man.”
Let’s not be too sure we are what we believe we are.
Adi Shankaracharya was passing through Srivali village near Udupi in Karnataka when a man called Prabhakara came and invited the master for bhiksha in his house. When the acharya went there, the man introduced his son to him – a thirteen year old boy who had never spoken. Bhagavan Shankaracharya looked into the boy’s eyes and realized he was looking at a highly advanced soul. “Who are you,” asked the master with a smile on his face. Prabhakara was confused because he had just introduced the boy as his son, that too a son who couldn’t speak. But as soon as the master asked the question, an amazing torrent of philosophical shlokas came out of the boy, as though a spring was bursting forth from the underground, astounding everyone but the master. What he said became subsequently known as Hastamalaka Stotra, the only philosophical work in the history of the world on which the author’s guru wrote a commentary. This is how the boy begins his answer to the master’s question:
naaham manushyo na cha deva-yakshau
na brahmachaarina grihee vanastho
bikshur na chaaham nija-bodha-roopah
I am not a man or a god or a yaksha;
I am not a brahmana, a kshatriya, vaishya or shudra
I am not a brahmachari, a householder or a forest dweller
Nor am I a sannyasi; what I am is pure consciousness of the self.
The young boy Hastamalaka continues in this strain until he expresses the entire philosophy that the acharya has been teaching travelling round the country!
Hastamalaka’s is yet another of the innumerable stories that tell us what we really are.
There is an ancient story about Indra living as a pig. The story is about the Pauranic Indra, who is a symbol of the unmastered human mind, and not of the Vedic Indra, who is the symbol of the awakened mind, of the no-mind, of pure consciousness.
The story says that Indra once offended his guru Brihaspati and was cursed to be born on earth as a pig. Over the years Indra living as a pig had a sow for his wife and several piglets by her for his children. He had no memories of being anything other than the pig – no memories of Indrani, no memories of the apsaras, kinnaris, yakshinis and gandharvis, no memories of the heavenly throne and the heavenly garden, no memories of celestial drinks, food, dance or music, no memories of the devarshis or Brihaspati, no memories of his curse. Quite some time passed this way, Indra fully immersed in his life as a pig.
However things were not fine in the world of the gods because their king was absent and Brahma decided to bring Indra back. He visited the earth where Indra the pig was living amid dirt and squalor and told him who he really was. And Indra turned to him asked, “Me, Indra! That’s impossible. I have always been a pig and that is what I am going to remain always. I am perfectly contented with my sow and my piglets. And look at the comfort I live in! What more can I desire?” And Indra looked around triumphantly with a smile on his lips, standing in the middle of a world of nauseating filth and stench, as though he is a great achiever, refusing to take one step away from it.
Ancient Indian spiritual tradition believed in beginning at the highest level and slowly coming down to lower levels, perhaps so that the advanced aspirants could be taken care of first and then the others who need more attention. Thus the Kena Upanishad, for instance, begins by teaching the highest truth and then later teaches the same truth in the form of a story – that of an encounter between Goddess Uma and the gods. Finally, the Upanishad ends by asking those who have not yet understood these teachings to practice austerities [tapas], mastery of the body and the senses [dama], the yoga of rituals and dedicated actions [karma] etc. which will ready their mind for higher understanding.
Following this tradition, Krishna too begins the teachings of the Gita with the highest level by speaking of the true nature of ourselves and then gradually comes down to lower truths.
Krishna tells Arjuna that we are not the marana-dharma beings we think we are.We are immortals who have existed from the beginning of time and will always exist:
na twevaaham jaatu naasam na twam neme janaadhipaah
na chaiva na bhavishyaamah sarve vayam atah param. 2.12
It is not that I did not exist before now,
nor you or these kings.
Nor shall we cease to exist in future.
This is India’s great teaching, teaching that takes all life into a different dimension, gives a different meaning to death, a different colour to all our ambitions, aspirations and achievements, to all our struggles in life, to all our stress and strain and pains, to all the goals we set for ourselves, goals others set for us. It changes everything. This teaching tells us to focus on the journey and not on the goal because life is a journey without a destination. It is a journey undertaken not to reach anywhere, not to achieve anything, but to enjoy the journey itself, like a rafting adventure down a torrent undertaken not to reach anywhere but for the pleasure of it, a rock climbing done not to reach anywhere but for the thrill of the climbing.
Years ago one of my students along with several of his friends undertook a journey by cycle from our town to Pithoragarh in Uttarakhand, covering some thirteen hundred kilometers oen way. The purpose obviously was not to reach Pithoragarh – there are much easier ways for that.
Once in Rishikesh many years ago, together with a young monk I met there, I planned a trekking trip along the Ganga. Our plan was to start at Gomukh and trek right down to Gangasagar where the Ganga meets the ocean – not for any specific purpose but for the adventure of it – we both loved the Ganga, she was a mother to us and we wanted to be with her, making the same journey she has been making for hundreds of thousands of years.
In the 1980s I conducted a series of personality develop programmes for Tata Steel, selecting young people through their Community and Social Welfare Department, for the first programme of which we had 180 enrollments. As part of these programmes we used to trek up the Dalma mountains in Jamshedpur, part of the Vindhya ranges. The programmes of course were not undertaken for reaching the top of the mountains – there were much easier ways for that. We just wanted to enjoy the pleasure of the climb, the pleasure of the night camp and the camp fire there, feel the thrill of trekking through thick forests that were haunts of wild elephants, tigers and other animals.
Life too is like that, the Gita teaches us. Life is the greatest adventure sport, the greatest stage play, the greatest movie there is. India calls it leela, kreeda. In the stories of Krishna, it is called raasa – raasa kreeda, raasa leela.
If we can say that there is any purpose, it is to realize what we are, what life is all about and then to continue the play knowing that it is a play, not identifying with the characters, not identifying with their joys and sorrows, not bound by them, but in freedom. Then we will be able to say at the end of it all that we played our role well, that it was great playing that role.
Our highest dharma is living for awakening, our only true dharma. This is what many mystics across the world belonging to different traditions call the mystical death. It is this mystical death that makes Jesus capable of saying “I and my father are one”. It is this that made the rishis of yore say I am brahman, aham brahmasmi. This is the highest experience in life, this mystical death, and if there could be any purpose, it is to experience this and become free from the notion of the ego that shackles us every day, colours every moment of our life.
“Maro he jogi, maro,” said the great master Gorakhnath, considered one of the four greatest masters India has known, the other three being Krishna, Buddha and Patanjali.He was not speaking of physical death, but about mystical death, the death of the ego and waking up into universal consciousness. But then like Gorakhnath’s own guru we forget that and start living the life of maya, of delusion, start taking the life of the senses for real, the life of our desires for real and have to be woken up again and again. Maya is like shaivala, water plants that grow on the surface of water in a pond or lake, says ancient wisdom. When you want to drink the cool water under the shaivala, you push them away with the back of your hands and gather water in the cup of your palms. But a moment later they come back and cover the surface again so that if you want to drink more water, you have to push them away again.
Krishna wants each one of us to live our lives joyously knowing it is only a leela, a play in which we are playing the roles we are given. The Bard of Avon was right when he said:
“All the world's a stage,
and all the men and women merely players;
they have their exits and their entrances;
and one man in his time plays many parts,”
But joyfulness is difficult under the shadow of death. So Krishna reminds us that death is not real, it is not the end of everything, it is not a dreadful monster waiting with its mouth open to swallow us, we do not have to live cringing in its fear. He wants us to walk the earth like the giants we really are, taking confident strides, and not taking tiny steps like Lilliputians. We are mighty trees, not bonsais. That is why India raised fearlessness to the level of God and said abhayam vai brahma, fearlessness is brahman. Abhayam is central to Krishna’s wisdom of life. His words in the Gita remind us of the mantras of the Upanishads as they talk to us: shrinvantu sarve amritasya putraah – listen ye, sons of immortality.
It is only when we are fearless that we can live in utsava bhava in the world because it is only then that we can forget ourselves. Without forgetting the ego there is no utsava bhava. All fears belong to the ego. Our true self knows no fears. To the extent we are egoless, to that extent we can celebrate. And when we are completely egoless, our entire life becomes a celebration. Egolessness is festivity, celebration, utsava. Adi Shankaracharya says in the Bhaja Govindam:
yogarato va bhogarato va sangarato va sangavihinah
yasya brahmani ramate chittam nandati nandati nandatyeva
Let him be engaged in yoga,
let him be engaged in bhoga [sensual pleasures],
he whose mind roams in brahman,
he just rejoices, rejoices and rejoices.
Of all the Upanishads, it is to the Katha Upanishad that the Gita comes closest. And the Upanishad has this to say about us, about our true self, about our true nature, and about death:
yasya brahma cha kshatram cha ubhe bhavata odanah;
mrtyur yasya upasechanam.... Katha Up.1.2.25
“You are that to which the entire brahmanas and kshatriyas of the world are but a meal. Death is nothing more chutney for you to lick up!”
To Krishna death is no more than another life change. “Just as in this body the self passes from childhood to youth and old age,” says he, “so too after death it passes to another body. The intelligent do not grieve over this.”
But can we use this knowledge in our workaday world? In our factories and corporate offices? In our markets and banks, in our hotels and kitchens?
Krishna says at the beginning of the fourth chapter of the Gita that this knowledge was originally taught to kings. If kings of yore could rule entire kingdoms using this knowledge and excel in what he did, then being the head of a corporate house today is no big deal. You may be the head of global organization, a multinational company or just a small division, this knowledge empowers you more than anything else does. With this knowledge, there will be a different quality to your work, a different music to it, a different rhythm, a different fragrance. You will be beyond the reach of the demon of tensions and stress then, beyond the demon of meaningless, beyond the demon of anxieties and fears. Just as the thickest darkness cannot touch the sun, worries and problems will not be able to touch you.
With this knowledge, our dysfunctional mental and emotional patterns like anger, fear, anxiety, sadness and the sense of self-limitations will fall away. Today the corporate world drains us of our energy, exhausts us completely, many of us reach back home in the evening after a day’s work totally fatigued and a feeling of having been sucked dry, with no energy left but even to rest and reequip for yet another similar day. Fatigue builds upon fatigue and reduce us to shapeless masses like overheated rubber. Instead, with this knowledge, we will be as fresh at the end of the day as when we woke up.
Our self-image will improve, hostility levels, rigidity, depression and so on will be reduced, our sensitivity, sociability, tolerance, and so on will go way up, improving our interpersonal relations.We will have better capacity to initiate contacts, greater inner control, and our emotional and energy blocks will be removed, helping us enjoy what we do better. Living this knowledge in the corporate world, we will have increased energy levels, drive, and the sense of power. Emotionally we will become more stable and spontaneous. Since our stress levels go way down, we will have increased capacity to deal calmly and decisively with the challenges the world throws at us.
With this knowledge, we will be able to come out of the cocoon in which we have been living all these years. We will not have to hide from light any more, we won’t have to hide in our personal jungles and caves. We will come out of the narrow vision of life and will be able to float with life with as the messiah of Richard Bach’s Illusions does.
“Once there lived a village of creatures along the bottom of a great crystal river. The current of the river swept silently over them all – young and old, rich and poor, good and evil, the current going its own way, knowing only its own crystal self.
“Each creature in its own manner clung tightly to the twigs and rocks of the river bottom, for clinging was their way of life, and resisting the current what each had learned from birth.
“But one creature said at last, ‘I am tired of clinging. Though I cannot see it with my eyes, I trust that the current knows where it is going. I shall let go, and let it take me where it will. Clinging, I shall die of boredom.’
“The other creatures laughed and said, ‘Fool! Let go, and that current you worship will throw you tumbled and smashed across the rocks, and you will die quicker than boredom.’
“But the one heeded them not, and taking a breath did let go, and at once was tumbled and smashed by the current across the rocks. Yet in time, as the creature refused to cling again, the current lifted him free from the bottom, and he was bruised and hurt no more.
“And the creatures downstream, to whom he was a stranger, cried, ‘See a miracle! A creature like ourselves, yet he flies! See the Messiah, come to save us all!’
“And the one carried in the current said, ‘I am no more Messiah than you. The river delights to lift us free, if only we dare let go. Our true work is this voyage, this adventure.’
“But they cried the more, ‘Saviour!”’ all the while clinging to the rocks, and when they looked again he was gone and they were left alone making legends of a Saviour.”
This is how Krishna want us to live. This is how Krishna wants us to be. Whether we are in a factory or in the market, in a corporate office or on a construction site, in a flight or in a battlefield.
Surrendering to existence, accepting life in its totality, fighting the battles of life fearlessly, with loka-sangraha as the only goal, living for the good of others.
The Jataka Tales of the Buddha tell us of five hundred of Buddha’s past life times, in each of which he lived fearlessly for others.
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