THE BHAGAVAD GITA IN DAILY LIFE

THE BHAGAVAD GITA IN DAILY LIFE
A Series From Swami Asokananda, On The Road

Swami AsokanandaIn this series of short video blogs, Swami Asokananda shares his insights from years of study of and contemplation on the great Indian scripture the Bhagavad Gita.

Swami Asokananda, initiated into monkhood in 1973 by Sri Swami Satchidananda, is the spiritual director of Integral Yoga Institute of New York, co-director of the Integral Yoga Global Network, and one of Integral Yoga’s foremost teachers. He is the primary instructor for the Intermediate and Advanced Hatha Yoga Teacher Trainings offered around the world.

Contents

For more information, please visit www.IntegralYoga.org.

Transcription: Becca Pulliam
Copyediting: Judith Sonntag
Photo: Leda Resurreccion

To purchase books, CDs, and DVDs, as well as digital downloads of Swami Satchidananda and Swami Asokananda, please go to www.shakticom.org.

This video is copyrighted by Satchidananda Ashram. Feel free to share it as long as it is not altered in any way and is shared in the spirit of respect for the Integral Yoga teachings. Om shanti.

©2019 Satchidananda Ashram–Yogaville, Inc./Integral Yoga

Part 1

Hari om, friends. My name is Swami Asokananda. I’ll be presenting these video blogs on a regular basis, hopefully on a weekly basis, on the Bhagavad Gita, the sacred scripture of the yogis. I want them to be very practical and useful and keep them very short, like one to two minutes, so that it’s very easy for you to watch.

I want to start, though, with a little background.

So, the Bhagavad Gita is 700 verses of the longest poem ever written. It’s over 100,000 verses, the Mahābhārata. The Mahābhārata is attributed to a sage named Vyāsa, although it’s pretty clear that it was written by a number of people over the centuries. And the myth is that Vyāsa went to Lord Ganesha and asked him if he could write whatever came through Vyāsa for the Mahābhārata. And Lord Ganesha had this condition. He said, “I can do it, but only if you agree that you’ll deliver it in one continuous stream. If you stop, I’m going to abandon the task.”

Vyāsa recognized that was going to be difficult, so he came up with a condition of his own, which was “All right, I can do that, but you should write only something you comprehend. You shouldn’t write anything you don’t understand.” So Vyāsa, whenever he needed to rest, would give him something very complex. And Ganesha had to think about that for a few moments, chew on it for a while.

So I think, let me start with that; that’s the message for this week. I’m in New York City now; that’s my home base. And next week I should be talking to you from France. Hari om. Om shanti.

Part 2

For this blog, I want to start by mentioning that the way I best relate to the Bhagavad Gita is as an internal dialogue between the part of myself that’s seeking, trying to understand, and that part of myself that’s awakened. So in the Bhagavad Gita Arjuna stands in as me, as the sincere soul trying to remove the veils from its eyes. And Sri Krishna represents my higher self, the Atma, that’s doing all it that it can to help the soul to awaken.

Joseph Campbell mentioned, or one of his main theses was, that the best way for the average person to gain right understanding is through good stories, what he called “archetypal myths.” And he was saying that the external part of the story entertains the mind, galvanizes our attention, and then there’s the internal part of the story, which brings lessons and deepens the understanding and gives guidance to the subconscious or the unconscious part of our self.

And good myths follow a similar trajectory. Someone is complacent or stuck in an unconscious way, and some trauma, some crisis, shakes them out of their dullness and forces them to find deeper resources within themselves and maybe seek help outside of themselves, and then they go through various trials and tribulations, and then they come back basically to where they started, chopping wood, carrying water, but totally transformed. In the Hindu tradition these stories are called the puranas, and there are hundreds and hundreds of them.

I think of myself like Arjuna, trying to wake up, and that makes me wonder if I’m really qualified to be speaking about the Bhagavad Gita. But I think about the wonderful American teacher Ram Dass. He wrote this very seminal book, Be Here Now, in the early ’70s, and it had a tremendous impact on the youth of America, including me. And he became very well known, he was propelled to fame, and then he was invited to teach a course on the BG at this new Buddhist university in Boulder, Colorado—the Naropa Institute. And when he saw hundreds and hundreds of people rushing to sign up for it, he got a little…had doubt in himself, he got frightened, so he wrote to the Swami in India, Swami Muktananda1, and expressed his concerns.

He wrote back, the Swami, “You don’t have to worry about teaching the Bhagavad Gita. That’s none of your business. The Gita will teach itself. Krishna will do it in spite of you.” So I try to feel that, that Krishna and my guru are with me whenever I speak to you like this, or am working on the book that I’m working on. So I think I’ll sign off now for this week. I hope there’s something interesting or useful in these words.

  1. The Guru of Ram Dass was Neem Karoli Baba.

Part 3

So, throughout the ages people, probably throughout the planet, maybe possibly other planets, went deep into the mind, transcended the mind, and found a true reality. In India this was mostly passed on by word of mouth from guru to disciple. Eventually, after probably hundreds of years, somebody started writing these things down. And then someone collected them, and that collection became known as the Vedas.

And the Vedas are divided into two sections—the karma conda, which is the action section, and the anaconda, which is the knowledge or wisdom section. And the karma conda deals with how to lead a secure, pleasurable life here but mostly with an eye to reaching a higher level, which we can call heaven. The anaconda is working with the goal of life, which is not heaven, and how to achieve that higher goal.

The culture that grew up around these teachings took place originally in North India, the Indus Valley. And they called it sanatana dharma, the eternal truth, the eternal way. Later, my understanding is, when the British came, since they were in the Indus Valley they called them the “Hindus,” and that’s where the Hindu religion came from. But the true essence of it is called sanatana dharma.

It’s very broad thinking. You can believe God had form. If you believed God [was] with form, you could choose your form, any form that worked for you. You could believe God had no form, an all-pervading underlying consciousness, which I think most people—even the people with form—understand is the alternate reality. Or you could not believe in God. There was no need to believe in God in sanatana dharma.

And the essence of the sanatana dharma, or the essence of the Vedas, is called the Danta. Veda-Anta. The end of the Vedas. Or you could translate it as Vedanta, ve meaning without, danta [meaning] teeth. In other words, when you’re old and gray and can’t chew your food well, that’s when you would study these teachings. That’s probably too late. It’s best not to understand the Danta that way, translated that way. You need to have some energy to practice Vedanta.

And the essence of the Danta in these 700 verses is called the Bhagavad Gita.

And I want to close this session with a quote from Mahatma Ghandhi.
“When doubts haunt me, when disappointments stare me in the face and I see not one way of hope on the horizon, I turn to the BG and find a verse to comfort me and immediately begin to smile in the midst of overwhelming sorrow. Those who meditate on the Gita will derive fresh joy and new meaning from it every day.”

Thank you for watching this video. My next one will be from Catania, Sicily, in about a week or so.

Part 4

Before the Bhagavad Gita starts, there are nine verses called the Gita Dhyanam, or the meditation on the Gita, and they are designed to help prepare the mind for the study of the Gita. And to prepare the mind I can think of three things that these verses do.

  1. They help us to be more focused, concentrated, undistracted, so we put our full attention in the Gita study.
  2. It helps us to humble our ego so that we get more attuned and aligned with Sri Krishna’s teachings.
  3. I think it prepares the mind by giving us faith, so that when we’re studying the Gita, we’re studying not just with our head but with our heart.

In Swami Satchidananda’s commentary on the Gita, he lists just two of the nine verses of the Gita Dhyanam, and I think I have it memorized. (If not I have it here.)

Om. O Bhagavad Gita
By which our origin was illumined by Lord Krishna himself
And which was composed in 18 chapters within the Mahābhārata by the ancient sage Vyāsa
O Divine Mother, destroyer of every birth
Who showers the nectar of oneness on us
O Bhagavad Gita, my affectionate mother
On thee I meditate.

All the Upanishads [are?] the cows
The milker is the cowherd boy, Krishna
Arjuna is the calf
People of purified intellect are the drinkers
The milk is the supreme nectar of the Gita.

My salutations to the Lord who is the source of supreme bliss
Whose grace makes a mute eloquent and a cripple cross mountains.

Om shanti.

So there are a few key things here. As I said in the first video, it says here that it was composed of 18 chapters within the Mahābhārata by the ancient sage Vyāsa…so the Bhagavad Gita is 700 verses from this huge epic poem Mahābhārata, and it’s attributed to the sage Vyāsa.

And it says, O Bhagavad Gita, my affectionate mother, on thee I meditate. I like that. The Sanskrit word is amba. So it’s Divine Mother, Affectionate Mother, who is very patiently lifting Arjuna and us up, elevating us. Chapter by chapter, we’re moving further along the path.
And then it also says O Divine Mother, destroyer of every birth, who showers the nectar of oneness on us. So the Bhagavad Gita nectar showers a nectar of oneness on us. The nectar is that if there’s only oneness, there’s no one and no thing to be afraid of.

So I’ll stop there for this week.

I hope we have the sincerity and the receptivity to receive these great teachings.
See you next week.
Om shanti, shanti, shanti.

Part 5

Hari om. Today we’re going to start at the very beginning. I remember, growing up, Julie Andrews singing in The Sound of Music, “A very good place to start . . .” So we’ll start with chapter 1, verse 1.

Take a slow, deep breath. Feel your body relaxing, the mind quieting down. Your heart is open. Your spirit’s receptive.

I’ll read you the first verse of the first chapter.

Dhritarashtra (or dhritarāśhtra) asked, What did the pandavahs (or Pāndavāhs) and my sons do when they assembled on the holy land of Kurukshetra, eager to fight, O Sanjaya?

So today I’ll talk about who Dhritarashtra is. He’s a king. He’s the ruler of the country. He’s also blind. You can be a good king when you’re a blind man, but his blindness isn’t limited to his physical eyes. His eyes, his individual consciousness, also can’t see or at least can’t see straight. And in this country, this individual consciousness, we also have a blind ruler, unfortunately. A blindness is reflected in the fact that even though we’ve read so much and know so much, we still tend to look outside for our fulfillment, even though we know that’s not going to happen. Our tamas also blinds us by covering over the inner light, and our rajas, our restlessness, pushes us outward, makes us focus outside of ourselves. And we also are blind to how our conditioning is functioning; our samskaras are mostly operating under the surface. They cause us to see things in a filtered and distorted way, and then we react to what we see in a preprogrammed way and with deeply ingrained patterns. And this kind of seeing is actually worse than blindness. A blind person at least knows he or she can’t see, but we think that we’re seeing reality when it’s just not so.

So I gave myself a homework assignment for the week. I’ll read it to you. This week I’m going to focus on the fact that my point of view may not truly be objective. I’m going to listen more deeply to different points of view and watch my reactions when people see things differently from the way I do.

Next week we’ll focus on O Sanjaya.
I hope you’ll be able to join.
Thank you for watching.
Om shanti, shanti, shanti.

Part 6

Hello, friends. Welcome to our next video lesson from the Bhagavad Gita. Last week we read the first verse of the first chapter, and we were introduced to the blind King Dhritarashtra. This week I’d like to introduce us to Sanjaya.

Let me read the first verse again.

Dhritarashtra (or dhritarāśhtra) asked, What did the pandavahs (or Pāndavāhs) and my sons do when they assembled on the holy land of Kurukshetra, eager to fight, O Sanjaya?

Sanjaya is the king’s minister, and the reason the king is asking Sanjaya this question is that Sanjaya was given this boon, this special power, by the sage Vyasa, of being able to see what’s happening on the battlefield a few miles away, and also of knowing what’s happening in the minds of the people, the combatants there. Vyasa first offered this boon to the blind king himself. And the blind king thought about it and said, “You know, I haven’t seen my whole life. Do I want to open my eyes [?] and see this carnage, and the battle?” And he declined.

But when Vyasa said, “Well, I could offer it to your minister,” he said, “Okay, that could come in handy if I want to see what’s happening.”

So that’s what happened. And Sanjaya, as the king’s minister, he’s also operating as the king’s conscience. He has to do it in a very delicate, respectful way. He’s trying to help the king to see that it would actually benefit the country if the king surrendered and allowed Arjuna and his brothers under the guidance of Krishna to oversee the country.

But the king is still in charge. He can listen to his conscience, but he has to decide whether to follow it or not.

It’s a good sign that the king asked his conscience what he thought, what was happening, and it’s always a good sign if the blind king within ourselves, the blind ruler, wants to check in with a softer voice within ourselves. Normally the king hears only the voice of the head, which is continually throwing up vrittis, thought waves. I haven’t found it productive to try to shut that voice down. It may seem counterintuitive, but I like to be the welcomer, the host. And the thoughts are my visitors that come and go. And when I look at things that way, it creates a huge shift and the thoughts seem to have less of a hold over me. And then that other voice, Sanjaya’s voice, the voice of the heart, can be heard more loud and clear.

So for the homework assignment, you’re welcome to join me. Before I make any decision of any importance, I’m going to pause and check in with Sanjaya to see whether my conscience has any guidance for me.

Thank you for listening. I hope to see you next week.
Om shanti, shanti, shanti.

Part 7

Hari Om. Welcome to our next Bhagavad Gita video lesson. It’s always good to start with a slow, deep breath.
 
We’ve talked about Dhritarashtra, the blind king. We can consider him to be manas, the lower mind. And we also talked about Sanjaya, his minister, who we said could be considered our conscience. 
 
The king is blind, but he is not deaf. He does want to hear Sanjaya’s input. It’s always a good sign, though maybe rare, when the lower mind asks the conscience to speak up. However, the problem is that upon receiving the input, it is not unusual for our blind ruler to either ignore the input or distort it. 
 
But we can’t completely blame the blind king for this. I don’t mean to be misogynistic, but I think we have to put some of the blame on his wife, Gandhari. When the ministers were looking for a partner for Dhritarashtra, not that many princesses from the neighboring kingdoms were interested in marrying a blind man. Gandhari was okay with it, but she did something unusual. She blindfolded herself so that she wouldn’t have any advantage over her husband. So Gandhari has the capacity to see, but she marries the blind king and chooses to give up her sight. Gandhari can be considered our buddhi, our inner  intelligence. 
 
If Gandhari marries the blind king, then four things tend to happen. 

  1. Our intelligence is used to rationalize the benefits of the status quo and why it is dangerous to move outside the boundaries of the known.
  2. Our intelligence is used to keep the mind moving outward through the senses.
  3. Our intelligence is used to keep us away from the present moment.
  4. Our intelligence is used to sabotage our spiritual journey. Because of our blindness we tend to shoot our soul in the foot.

 
Some of you know that I’m working on a translation of and commentary on the Bhagavad Gita. This week I was working on the 18th chapter, the 31st verse. It reads like this: 
 
When the buddhi is rajasic (restless), it has a distorted and confused understanding of dharma and adharma, what’s good for the soul and what puts more obstacles to the soul. Therefore, it often errs in deciding what to do and what not to do. 
 
The interesting thing that happened to me was while I was working on this verse, I heard the ping that I got an e-mail. And I normally wouldn’t interrupt this work, but I saw the name of the person, and I said, “Hmmm, I would like to see what’s happening.” So I checked the e-mail. And the person was saying I could have done something better and gave me some advice about how to do that. My mind really got worked up, with vrittis flying all over the place. My samskaras presented me with two options: Either I ignore this person because they don’t know what they’re talking about, or I educate the person and help them realize that they don’t know what they’re talking about.
 
Suddenly it struck me that I was supposed to be working on the Gita book. And then a second bolt of lightning struck, and I realized that I just got this amazing lesson from the Guru or the Universe! How easy it is for my buddhi to veer into rajas. As the verse said, when the buddhi is disturbed, it doesn’t know what to do or how to distinguish between dharma and adharma. Thank you for such a timely and immediate lesson!
 
So my homework for this week: Watch for situations where I can see Gandhari supporting the blind king. That is, recognize when my samskaras, with their pre-conceived notions, are clouding my judgment and pushing me to do something that I am likely to regret later. 
 
Thank you for watching this video. I look forward to seeing you next week.
 
Om shanti, shanti, shanti.

Part 8

Hello, friends and sangha members. Ready for your next Bhagavad Gita lesson?
Hope you’re sitting comfortably. Let’s take our slow, deep breath.

Last week we went over the first verse of the first chapter. I’d like to skip ahead now to the twentieth verse of the first chapter. I’ll read it to you.

Arjuna said, Place my chariot in the middle of the two armies, O Krishna, so that I may behold those who stand here desirous of fighting and know with whom I must fight as the battle is about to commence.

A big battle is about to take place. It’s a war between the sons of the blind king and his wife Gandhari, and believe it or not they number a hundred. It’s a war between the sons of Pandu, the blind king’s brother, and there are five of those brothers called the pandavahs. So they’re cousins. The esoteric meaning of that is that they’re both parts of us. They coexist within our same heart. The problem is that the self-centered part—the part that is the children of Ghandari and the blind king—number a hundred, and the pandavahs—the virtuous part, the part that actually cares about others and looks for the unfoldment of the soul—they number five. So it’s a 20:1 ratio. You could say that for every selfless thought, we have twenty thoughts of What about me? Taking care of number one.

Arjuna is the middle son of Pandu and his wife Kunti. And those who know more about the Mahābhārata know that that’s not totally accurate. But to keep things simple for today, let’s say that’s true. And the name Arjuna means “the one who makes sincere efforts.” So he’s been purified to the point that he has become a genuine seeker and someone who is sincerely trying to understand the purpose of life. The name Krishna comes from the root krish, to draw, and Sri Krishna is the consciousness at the core of our being that is continually drawing us back to the source.

And this battle is taking place because the pandavahs have been thirteen years in exile, and after that period they were supposed to come back; it was arranged for them to come back and reign over a certain part of the kingdom. But the blind king’s son Duryodhana has reneged on the deal. And there seems to be no option. They did their best, but now they have to stand and fight for their right.

You could say that a part of us—you can call it the soul—also has been in exile for a long, long time. If you’re watching this video, you sense that [?] after many lifetimes of hard knocks and difficult lessons, the noble part of us is seeking to go back again to guiding our being and our psyche. And the Bhagavad Gita is the guidebook on how this conflict, between the part of us that is determined to stay asleep and the part of us that aspires to wake up, is going to be resolved.

My guru Swami Satchidananda says, “This battle didn’t just happen some thousands of years ago. It is constantly happening. It is within each of us.”

So the homework assignment for this week—again feel free to join me—is do we feel that there is a part of us that’s blind and wants to remain asleep? If so, how does that manifest? If you want to take part, you can write your answer on Facebook.

The next four weeks I’ll be in Europe. Pilar is lending me her camera. It’s small enough that I think I can put it in my luggage, so I hope I can continue these over the next four weeks. Thank you for watching.
Om shanti, shanti, shanti.

Part 9: The Neutral Zone

Hello. Hari om. Welcome to our ninth episode in the Bhagavad Gita lessons, entitled “The Neutral Zone.” It’s different from The Twilight Zone, although it’s a little similar in that it can be a little scary, the neutral zone.

Let’s start with a slow, deep breath.

So we’ll continue from the same verse we left off at last week. I’ll read it to you.

Arjuna said, Place my chariot in the middle of the two armies, O Krishna, so that I may behold those who stand here desirous of fighting and know with whom I must fight as the battle is about to commence.

In Latin the root medi- refers to the middle, as in “Mediterranean” (terra is the word for land). Meditation is the act of putting ourselves into neutral territory so that we can just observe what is.

J. Krishnamurti said that “to observe without evaluating is the highest form of intelligence.”

A meditative mind that is in the neutral zone is smarter than the thinking mind. So we could say that this request from Arjuna is the soul asking the higher self to place it in the middle, this neutral territory. We can call it the DMZ, the demilitarized zone, where all the different facets of our being can be observed, all the different pulls, desires, and some scars, can be observed without our reacting to them.

There are three things that can make getting into the neutral zone uncomfortable. One is that when we get to that sacred, holy place, we really see things as they are. We usually [?] see things only through the distortion of our conditioning, how it filters our experience. We can say that’s truly fake news. We’re not seeing things as they really are.

The second thing that can be uncomfortable is that we see things we couldn’t see before. So we perceive that our motives may not always be so selfless as we thought they were. We may not be so kind, sensitive, and awake as we thought ourselves to be.

And the third uncomfortable thing is that as we become more conscious, we become aware that there’s plenty that we still don’t see. I once was blind, and now I see kind of. I see a fuzzy way, and I also see how much I can’t really see.

So it’s difficult to get into the neutral zone. Any meditator knows that. But as a result of these three things, it’s even harder to stay there. It is possible, but what we want to see happen is that any reaction we have to seeing ourselves more clearly is also a part of our observation. We don’t react to that reaction. We’ll see shortly that Arjuna was not able to do this.

So the homework assignment I’ve given myself, and as always please join me, when I go into reactive mode, can I pause—doing only what Eric Schiffmann calls “putting a comma in our commentary” (I love that)—observe the reaction, and help the mind to find its way back into the neutral zone?

Thank you for joining. Hope to see you next week.
Om shanti, shanti, shanti.

Part 10: A Life Review

Hari om. Welcome to episode number 10 of our Bhagavad Gita lessons, entitled “A Life Review.” 

Last week we talked about the esoteric meaning of Arjuna’s asking Sri Krishna to place his chariot in the middle of the battlefield. It is analogous to our going into a witnessing state in deep meditation, which I called “the neutral zone.” And I expressed that there could be some painful repercussions from seeing ourselves so clearly. 
 
In 1969, shortly after I met my Guru-to-be at the Woodstock Music Festival, I went on a road trip with some friends to California. I was at a bookstore in San Francisco, where I saw the book How to Know God. I was brought up in a nonreligious home, but, as with many people my age at the time, LSD was shaking up everything I thought I knew about myself and the world. The title of the book piqued my interest. I’m not proud of this: I put the book down my pants and walked out of the bookstore. It turned out to be a translation and commentary of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali by the Ramakrishna monk Swami Prabhavananda and his disciple, the English writer Christopher Isherwood. 
 
As I was 17 years old, a lot of it was way over my head. But there was one thing that has stayed with me even to this day. The swami was saying that the fear of death is not just the fear of extinction or the fear of the unknown. It’s actually the fear of the known, although it is not a conscious known. The swami said that most of us are afraid of the life review that comes shortly after we leave the body. It can be a harrowing process to see before us how our thoughts, words, and actions impacted the world and those around us. This is portrayed well in the movie Defending Your Life, with Albert Brooks and Meryl Streep. 
 
What the Bhagavad Gita is asking Arjuna and us is that before we leave the body we should undergo this process. Can we become self-aware enough that we can see the things in our life we can be proud of, see the things that we’re ashamed of, and see that the mistakes we made probably provided us with our most valuable lessons? And that we are using those lessons to shift very deeply ingrained samskaras? 
 
If we are able to live so consciously and awake, then when the time comes to leave the body and have this life review, it’s like a rerun of a movie we’ve already seen. There’s nothing shocking about it. Then we can more peacefully move onto the astral realm until the time comes to experience our next birth.
 
Homework:  

  • Do you believe there is such a thing as a life review?
  • If so, do you feel you can face it without dread?
  • Is there anyone of whom you need to ask forgiveness?
  • Do you need to forgive anyone?
  • Do you need to forgive yourself and move on?

Part 11

Let’s start with our slow, deep opening breath. Since I’m in Italy, let’s do it in Italian.

Profondo inspire,
Lentamente espira.

Feel that the mind is now clear and the heart is open.

Arjuna has asked Sri Krishna to place him in the middle of the battlefield. A huge battle is about to begin, with hundreds of thousands of warriors ready to fight to the death. Krishna’s main interest is the awakening of Arjuna’s consciousness, so he puts the chariot in front of two very specific people. The first is Bhishma, who is a respected and noble elder in the kingdom, and the other is Drona, who has been Arjuna’s teacher since he was a young boy.

Krishna’s only words in this first chapter of the Bhagavad Gita are “Here is who you have to fight.” There are plenty of not so noble people on the other side, but his being put in front of these two great men was a wake-up call for Arjuna. This battle is taking place in our own heart. Krishna, as our true Self, is telling our soul that all our conditioning, all our samskaras, ultimately have to be transcended. If we are truly keen on entering the Spirit, then we need to release our identification with even our good mental patterns.

There’s a story about Bodhidharma, who was a disciple of Lord Buddha’s. After his enlightenment, Bodhidharma’s duty was to bring the Buddha’s teachings from India to China. And even though he had probably one of the softest hearts on the planet, his external personality was very gruff. People were frightened of him.

As Bodhidharma was traveling through a village, a man started following him from a distance. He had a burning question, but it took a while for him to get up the courage to approach the teacher. Finally, Bodhidharma whipped around, shook his cane at the man, and shouted, “Why are you following me? Get away!”

The man said, “Sir, I really have to ask you a question. I hope you’ll be patient and answer this one question.”

“What’s your question?” Bodhidharma said sternly.

“Well, last week was my 50th birthday, and I spent the day on my own, mostly meditating. I got into a deep place, beneath the waves of the mind, and I saw myself more clearly than I ever have before. I was really shaken to see that even though I have a 50-year-old body, I haven’t matured since maybe the age of 12. I’m a prepubescent emotional being in a 50-year-old body. Can you help me? How am I going to mature and become an adult?”

Bodhidharma asked, “Well, have you killed anybody?”

“No, sir, I’ve never killed anybody.”

“Then what do you expect?” scoffed Bodhidharma, and he turned and continued on his way to China.

The man sat down at the side of the road. Though it was far from what he had expected, he’d received the answer from the Master. He was wondering, Is it really proper for me to take a life so that I can become a grown-up? Maybe I misunderstood the Master. Let me double-check with him before I do anything rash.

So he caught up with Bodhidharma a few villages later.

“You again? I told you what to do.”

“Sir, I just want to make sure. If I kill somebody, then I’m going to grow up and become an adult?”

“Not just anybody. You have to kill your mother.”

(My mom was in the audience the first time I told this story. I saw her eyes widen at this point of the story.)

So the man again sat down on the side of the road and reviewed what the Master had said. He was a great Master, so he must have known that the man’s mom had been dead for ten years. As he watched the thoughts coursing through his mind, he had a powerful and unsettling recognition: he saw—he actually saw—that his mom had infiltrated every part of his psyche. Every thought wave that arose could be traced back to his having been influenced by his mom. His whole conditioning and personality was built upon his relationship with his mom.

And he saw that the Master’s instruction to kill his mom was not a call for violence. To become his own person and to get out from under her influence, he needed not to identify with the voice in his head. In other words, he needed to pull his “I” feeling out of his conditioning, out of his samskaras. And he needed to have a direct, nonviolent communication with his mom so that he could become a man.

In my own practice, I started with not believing that the negative messages my mind came up with were “me.” This allowed me to weaken the undesirable patterns. But I can see that the “good boy” in me is also a part of my conditioning and ego structure. There is the “good” that comes from the mental level, and there is the “Good” that comes from beyond the mind. This is the Goodness that Krishna wants Arjuna and us to reach.

Om shanti, shanti, shanti.

Part 12: Consciousness Beyond Even the Good Mind

Hari om. Welcome to Part 12 entitled, “Consciousness Beyond Even the Good Mind.”

Sri Krishna lets Arjuna know that Arjuna will need to do battle with Bhishma and Drona, two noble people for whom he has great respect. I’ve had some thoughts since the last session about this topic. Swami Satchidananda, my Guru, has a disciple named Amma Kidd. The beautiful quality of Amma is that she sees the highest part of each person. Even in my early 20s, when I was still very wet behind the ears in terms of my spiritual growth, she would say, “My inspiration! You always inspire me!” I didn’t know what she was talking about, but that’s how she saw me.

But when I was with Swami Satchidananda, I never knew how he would greet me. Sometimes he’d be warm and friendly. Sometimes he would pounce upon my ego. Sometimes he would ignore me. I felt as if I could relax with Amma; she always saw me as if I were wearing my best clothes, whereas in front of my Guru I felt that he was seeing me naked. I could try to reach for a fig leaf to preserve my dignity, but he would see beyond any façade that I put up. 

I love Amma. It’s a blessing to have someone like that in my life who sees only my good qualities. But Swami Satchidananda is my Guru, and that’s the ultimate blessing. I want to hold on to my identity as a good boy—the Bhishma and Drona within me—who is worthy of respect. The job of the Guru, though, is to see the “me” beyond even the good tendencies, so that I can be established in the highest level of my being—the Guru that is within me. 

Krishna wants us to know that there is a part of us—our True Self—that is beyond the mind, even the good mind. That is our true home and final destination. 

Om shanti, shanti, shanti.

Part 13: John Anderson has to go

Hari om. Welcome to Part 13 entitled, “John Anderson has to go.” We’ve left Arjuna in the middle of the battlefield in front of Bhishma and Drona—two noblemen whom he respects highly. And suddenly his vision of the enemy and his eagerness to fight this war shift dramatically.

Chapter 1, verses 27–31:

On seeing his friends and relatives positioned on both sides, Arjuna was overcome with pity and said despondently:

“O Krishna, my limbs fail me, my mouth is parched, my body is shaking, and my hair stands on end seeing my relatives gathered here and anxious to fight.”

Arjuna’s bow, Gandiva, fell from his hands: “My skin is burning. I can’t keep standing, and my mind seems to be reeling.

I see bad omens, Krishna. I cannot see any good resulting from the slaughter of my own people in battle.”

Arjuna is having a panic attack. He’s in the neutral zone, placed by Sri Krishna in front of these two men. He sees that the enemy is his “own people,” and he begins to fall apart. He’s supposed to. He’s been set up. Just as the first man, Adam, seemed to have been set up to eat the fruit, now Arjuna has been set up. And, I’m sorry to say, each of us is also being set up to fall apart. Prakriti is positioning us for the crumbling of the ego structure.

This is my understanding of the esoteric meaning of what is happening:
Imagine that your consciousness is awakened and you can see that you have been traveling for a long, long time. And you can clearly perceive the state of your soul. You see your spiritual and egoistic tendencies. You see that the egoistic forces far outnumbered the spiritual. But, as with Arjuna, that is not what frightens you. The really scary thing is that you see that the egoistic samskaras were the ones that you had the most investment in, the most attachment to, the strongest identification with, the most belief in. Normally, we see ourselves as good spiritual seekers, but when we arrive in the neutral territory and stand in front of the enemy, we see that it is us.

As I said last week, we don’t have to kill anything, but we have to let go of something in order to awaken to something much bigger. But what we have to let go of is everything to us now. And we don’t really have a clear idea of what that something bigger is. So, Arjuna’s reaction is not so unusual. We may be in the same, distressed state when our time comes.

People practice Yoga for different reasons, but, as Saint Francis said, ultimately we have to die to be reborn. In the movie The Matrix, Morpheus is sure that this man John Anderson is Neo, the name an anagram for One. Morpheus wanted to get confirmation from this spiritual lady, the Oracle. She has a chat with John, and at the end she says, “Oh, by the way, John, you’re not the One.” John seemed relieved; he had no reason to see himself as a savior. But Morpheus is confused and distraught about this.

At the end of the first film of the trilogy, AI, Mr. Smith, kills John Anderson. But then he gets up, and he’s no longer John Anderson. It is in dying that he is reborn as Neo. Mr. Smith recognizes this and has to run for his computer-generated life.

This is the message of the Gita and many spiritual traditions. We are Neo, the One. The John Anderson in us, our limited, conditioned self, has to be transcended. Krishna is going to show Arjuna, and us, the way.

Om Shanti Shanti Shanti

Part 14: Falling back on cleverness to avoid facing ourselves

Hari om. Welcome to Part 14 entitled, “Falling back on cleverness to avoid facing ourselves.” There’s no doubt that war is a savage and brutal way to try to resolve conflict. There must be a better way for Homo sapiens to resolve disputes, rather than send young people to kill one another or press a button and level a city block. I like that Gene Roddenberry, the creator of the Star Trek series, envisioned a world in a few hundred years where humans have ended all war. That allowed us to combine our resources so that we could explore the final frontier (though the Yogis would not call it the “final frontier”). May it be so.
We can feel empathy when Arjuna starts to panic as he’s placed in the middle of the battlefield with the war about to begin. But, as I’ve been saying, it’s more useful to keep our focus on the esoteric significance of the story, as well as how it pertains to us.

Arjuna’s anxiety is arising from a direct perception of how attached and identified he is with his current ego structure, and how concerned he is about who he would be if he transcended everything that he holds dear to his life at this time.

In lesson number 7, I talked about Gandhari and how she represents our buddhi, our inner intelligence. When she marries the blind king and blindfolds herself, then our intellect becomes our rationalizing ego. Now we use our intelligence to remain safely in the darkness, clinging to our comfort zone, and, in the worst-case scenario, finding ways to sabotage our spiritual journey.

This is what we see happening in verses 32–44 of Chapter 1. As Arjuna falls apart, his inner Gandhari is working overtime to try to convince him and Sri Krishna that his impulse to flee from the battle is a spiritual one. He uses his cleverness to weave a web of logic that shields him from having to face what he doesn’t want to see in himself. Krishna keeps quiet. And because Arjuna isn’t receiving any feedback or positive response, he keeps piling on more and more arguments to support his case.

Arjuna is on his way to hitting rock bottom. His heart is going to be broken open, and the Light is going to start seeping through the cracks.

Om Shanti Shanti Shanti

Part 15: We May Need to Hit Rock Bottom

Hari Om. Part 15 is entitled, “We May Need to Hit Rock Bottom.”
Chapter 1 ends with Arjuna saying to Sri Krishna:
“Alas! We are about to commit a great sin in slaying our kinsmen out of greed for the pleasures of the kingdom. It would be better for me if the sons of Dhritarashtra (the blind king), would slay me, unresisting and unarmed in battle.”
Then Sanjaya said to the king:
“Having thus spoken, Arjuna – casting aside his bow and arrows – sat down in the middle of the battlefield with his mind overwhelmed with sorrow.”

This is the first of two surrenders of Arjuna. This first one is a giving in more than a letting go. The esoteric meaning is that, from the perspective of the ego, victory in this battle doesn’t look very appealing. If I’m going to transcend my conditioning and everything that I know about myself, the entire narrative of my life, then who am I going to be? So throws down his bow and gives in to his samskaras. He doesn’t feel he can, or he’s not inclined to, do battle with them. This surrender we can call self-resignation.

In The Matrix Trilogy, there’s a scene where one of the rebels fighting the tyranny of the Artificial Intelligence, feels that it’s become too much for him. The rebellion is so hard and doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. So he meets with the AI, Mr. Smith, at a fancy restaurant. He’s used to eating this nasty goop, but now in this computer generated reality he’s eating a juicy steak. He says “Ah, this taste so good. I know it’s not real, but why niggle at the small details. I’ll tell you what, if you can throw in a few beautiful women and maybe a position of authority, I think I can work with you. I’ll spy on my compatriots.”

There a special kind of pain that eventually catches us with those who have awakened, and attempt to unawaken. I don’t know if it’s possible to fully close your eyes again and pull the covers over your head. They’re not able to enjoy the bliss of ignorance that other people can. Maybe Judas experienced that type of pain.

When the soul is ready, the Cosmic Intelligence maneuvers the ego into a situation where the foundations of its seeming separate existence begin to crumble. This is what happened to Arjuna when Krishna put him in front of Bhishma and Drona, two men he held in high regard. It sapped him of all his enthusiasm for the battle. Krishna is going to encourage him to pick himself up and get back in there.

The message of the Gita begins in this crisis situation. It may be necessary to be broken open before we are ready to be receptive to the soul’s impulse to march down the path less traveled. This first chapter is called “The Yoga of Despondency of Arjuna.” For many of us, this despondency is the impedance that sets us on the path. We may need to hit rock bottom before we can truly move on. But stay tuned. Things are going to pick up for Arjuna.

Om shanti shanti shanti

Part 16: There is Only One Life Raft

Hari om. Welcome to Part 16 entitled, “There is Only One Life Raft.”

In chapter 1, Arjuna is claiming the high moral ground for his reasons not to fight, and Krishna just keeps quiet. Krishna now breaks His silence with these first three verses in chapter 2:

Sanjaya said (to the blind king),
Seeing Arjuna overwhelmed with pity, despondent, and his eyes filled with tears of despair,

Sri Krishna spoke these words:
“Why this cowardly dejection, Arjuna, which at this critical juncture deludes you and shuts the gates to the higher realms?

This is no time to fall prey to weakness. Shake off this faint-heartedness. Pick yourself up. You’re the scorcher of foes.”

This chapter called “The Yoga of Wisdom” starts off with Krishna giving Arjuna what we call “tough love.” I often received this type of love from my Guru, Sri Swami Satchidananda. When I felt I needed sympathy or some gentle encouragement to pick myself up, he would say “Buck up, man!” He would refuse to see me as a weak person and buy into my “woe is me” mentality.
Likewise, Krishna sees Arjuna’s greatness and he wants Arjuna to know that he is capable of facing whatever his destiny brings him.

We can divide our lives into two aspects: There’s the external part that we call “action,” and there’s the hidden internal part which we call motive. What Sri Krishna is doing here is bringing Arjuna’s hidden part, his subconscious, to the conscious level. Then he will be able to make an honest appraisal of the situation, and have the ability to see how he’s holding himself back.

Krishna calls this moment in Arjuna’s journey “a critical juncture.” As we mossy along through our day-to-day lives, there are a few moments that turn out to be crossroads on the soul’s sojourn. Arjuna is at one of those moments. Have you been in that place where the decision you made affected the trajectory of the rest of your life? What Arjuna does next is crucial, how he responds we have tremendous impact on his own life and the lives of many others.

Krishna uses the word aswargyam. Swargyam is heaven. Aswargyam means something is blocking the way to heaven. Arjuna’s despondency, his negative feelings in facing this situation, are lower vibrations that are cutting him off from the higher frequencies that he needs now to see clearly, make the right decision, and have the strength to follow through on that.

Arjuna had the option of gaining all of Krishna’s army to help him fight this battle. Instead, he chose Krishna to drive his chariot; he had that much faith in Krishna. Arjuna needs to call on that faith now. He needs to transfer the faith he’s placed in his ego and place it on the Atman within. However, the ego, the separate self, will react like the Witch in The Wizard of Oz—“I’m melting, I’m melting, I’m melting.”

I’ve seen my own ego melt at different times along the path. It always has found a way to regroup, spring back to life, and to grasp onto another life raft. We go from life raft to life raft, each one eventually getting punctured. Krishna is extending his hand to Arjuna (and to all of us), inviting him to jump on to his boat. It’s the only real life raft fit to cross the ocean of samsara—the ocean of birth and death, birth and death.

I’ll conclude with a quote the great Dada Vaswani, who left the body not long ago:

Of what are we proud? Youth? Beauty? Power? Wealth? Influence? Position? All, all will pass away, bursting like so many bubbles on the surface of the stream.

Om Shanti Shanti Shanti.

Part 17: Things are beginning to shatter

Posted August 30, 2019
Hari Om. Welcome to episode 17 of our Bhagavad Gita lessons called “Things are beginning to shatter.”

We’re up to the 4th verse in the 2nd chapter. It reads:

Arjuna said, “Krishna! You are the destroyer of demons. But how can I go into battle against the venerable Bhishma and Drona, whom I revere?”

After receiving a very healthy serving of tough love from Sri Krishna, we’re going to see over the next three verses how Arjuna’s ego structure is progressively shattering, until he gets to verse 7, where he drops his façade totally. In verse 7, we see what true surrender looks like, versus the dejected, self-resignation surrender that we saw at the end of Chapter 1.

In this 4th verse Arjuna is contrasting Krishna’s opposition to negative demonic forces, whereas Arjuna is facing the pillars of society. On the esoteric level, Arjuna’s dilemma is: I understand that it is necessary for me to overcome my selfish, insensitive, cruel conditioning. But do I really need to also overcome my positive, ennobling samskaras? Arjuna can’t wrap his mind around this idea of leaving everything behind—his whole identity, history, and story. Is that possible or even desirable?

Krishna will point out throughout the Gita that having good samskaras, a sattva mind, is an important step on the spiritual path that leads to the doorway of the true Self. However, to move through that door, at some point we will need to move completely beyond the mental level and all samskaras.

Let’s see over the next few verses how Arjuna comes to the end of his rope.

Om Shanti Shanti Shanti.

Part 18: What Do We Do When the Going Gets Tough?

Posted September 13, 2019
Hari Om. Welcome to our next Bhagavad Gita lesson. I’m sorry that I wasn’t able to keep it going when I was in China. I’m back in New York now, ready to re-initiate these lessons.

This is episode 18, entitled “What Do We Do When the Going Gets Tough?”

To review, we have left Arjuna in the middle of the battlefield. Sri Krishna has placed him in front of two men he greatly respects, Bhishma and Drona. Suddenly, all his enthusiasm for this battle has been drained from him. In verse 5 of the second chapter Arjuna says:

I think it would be better for me to walk away now and go out begging for my food than to fight against these noble souls who have been my teachers. If I were to kill them, anything I enjoy in this world would be stained with their blood.

You’ve probably noticed from your own experience that life is going to present us with continuous dilemmas and challenges. This is particularly true of sincere spiritual seekers. These difficult situations are there to help us see our weaknesses, see how they limit our lives, and to come in touch with our inner strength. Arjuna is a great soul, but now he’s facing the biggest challenge of his life and maybe of all his lifetimes. And Sri Krishna has orchestrated this because he feels Arjuna is ready at this moment to face it. I think that’s how it works for all of us.

But in this verse, Arjuna begs to disagree. Though at first he was eager to engage in this fight, now he wants to walk away from it. It looks to him that winning this war means transcending all his conditioning and everything he knows about himself. Not only is he not ready for that, he doubts that it would even be a good thing.

So he comes up with what he feels is a brilliant idea: I could become a monk, a sannyasin, walk away from this battle, and beg for my food! What could be more spiritual than that? Isn’t it better to eat whatever someone offers me from begging, even if it’s stale bread, than to eat a feast that is sprinkled with the blood of all that are close to me?

Yes, becoming a monk can be a noble thing, but not if it’s based on running away when the going gets tough. When life feels like too much, we can do our best to make the ego feel safe, but it’s always an illusion. This separate consciousness is innately fragile and vulnerable. We can try to protect it when it starts to suffer, looking for the nearest exit or distraction. I believe, though, that we all have experienced how our karma is a hound dog. Once it has our scent it eventually catches up with us. Then we find ourselves in a similar set of circumstances.

Om Shanti Shanti Shanti.

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