If one sets aside its key teaching of knowledge of Reality (Brahma vidya) and viewed the Gītā primarily as a manual for right living in preparation for a life committed to self-enquiry (yoga śāstra), we discover how immensely practical it is. What might seem esoteric when clothed in mystical symbolism or religious language turns out to be common sense when stripped to its essence. Below the dialogue from some distant battlefield is viewed as a form of inner dialogue that involves the aspect of oneself that is battling for self-mastery (Arjuna) and that aspect of oneself that is one’s own true nature (Kṛṣṇa). The other players in this battle are aspects of human nature that either obstruct our efforts to be happy or support them.* With this in mind…
Q: What will the Gītā teach me that will end the constant nagging sense of dissatisfaction?
A: It starts by pointing out that those who know their own true never-changing nature are never unhappy. It then points out how to live an effective life here and now in order to prepare the mind for knowledge of that never-changing nature.
Q: What is an ‘effective life’?
A: The key is hidden in the first two words of the Gītā: they tell us that an effective life is one in which, whatever the field of endeavour, one acts in accordance with dharma, i.e. one’s actions uphold and support conditions that are most propitious for self-knowledge. If we unpack and re-arrange the component of the first two opening words of the Gītā it says: kshetre, kshetre, dharma kuru: In every field of endeavour act in accordance with dharma.
Q: What prevents my actions from being in accordance with dharma?
A: The ‘kingdom’ of this human embodiment tends to be ruled by indiscriminate mind (the blind king, Dhṛtarāṣṭra), with its myriad offspring in the form of sense desires and material attachments (the Kauravās:100 offspring the blind king). We should take heart, however, from the fact that the forces of discrimination (the five Pāṇḍavas) are lined up to do battle with this massive army of desires (the 100 Kauravas)… BUT, the Divine power of self-control (Arjuna) suddenly gives was to doubt and refuses to fight. This is not the best condition for effective action. When self-control is abandoned, desires and sense tendencies rule the life.
Q: Why is desire such a big problem?
A: Desire and material attachments are distracting if they become strong attachments in the form of emotional entanglements – in the extreme these could manifest as obsessions. If I am ruled by appetites (or aversions) while acting, then my wholehearted attention cannot go to what I’m doing – my mind is split between the task in hand and my concern with whether or not I’ll achieve my end. And without wholehearted attention it’s unlikely that an action will achieve its full potential. In the words of the Gītā: ‘Wretched are they whose motive is the result’. When one’s faculty of discrimination is overpowered by desires it is ineffective in overcoming any distracting forces. The common erroneous belief here is that the Gītā is preaching a bleak, joyless existence. It isn’t: it simply cautions against making the securing of pleasures the end goal of life. Enjoy, but see the limitations of worldly pleasures: they cannot deliver the limitless happiness that one seeks. A mind blinded by its attachment to pleasure isn’t the most useful for living an effective life.
Q: Are there other causes for discrimination to become weakened?
A: Due to attachment and identification with body and mind, there are a host of other factors that weaken discrimination: disease, incapacity of the mind to work, indecision, heedlessness, want of energy, intemperance, mistaken notions, missing the point, instability. They are manifest through pain, despair, shakiness, expiration and inspiration. These 14 obstacles to a pure and steady mind are listed in the Yoga Sūtras by Patañjali and can be read into Arjuna’s lament in Chapter 1 v29-47 starting with disease: …My limbs droop down, and my mouth is dried up. A tremor comes upon my body and my hairs stand on end. (…v29) My bow, Gāndīva, slips from my hand; my skin is intensely burning. I am also unable to stand… (v30…). It continues with incapacity of the mind to work: …my mind is whirling round, as it were (…v30). And, O Keśava, I see omens foreboding evil. Nor do I see any good from killing my kinsmen in battle (v31). And so on…
Q: Why is discrimination so weak – why can’t it overcome desire?
A: One powerful reason is that the ‘I’-thought (symbolised by the grandsire of the clan, Bhishma, the one that everyone turns to for advice) and habitual tendency (symbolised by Drona, the teacher of skills) back up the army of desires in the battle (although, given the choice, both have a preference for discrimination). This results in a lack of internal integration (yoga): mind wants one thing, but the heart (desire) usually wants something totally different (as Arjuna points out in Ch 2 v7). Again, common observation shows, that in this battle, the heart usually wins. Is it possible to act effectively if the heart is not behind the action? In fact, is it even possible to do anything that the heart does not want? Unless mind and heart are integrated, the action will either lack conviction or lack direction.
Q: Is it possible for mind and heart to become integrated?
A: Yes, but the remedy cannot be from either mind or heart.
Q: Why not?
A: Because the heart split from mind is ineffective, and the mind split from heart is impotent. So neither of them will be capable of delivering an effective solution as to how they can be integrated. The solution will need to come from a place that transcends both heart or mind. Alternatively it needs to come from a place where heart and mind are united.
Q: So what’s the solution?
A: To start to act with reference to what is the best part of oneself – the highest Me within. Do not act with reference to agitating emotions like fear, anger, lust, desire… Do not act with reference to the past habit… Do not act with reference to future gain… This is what Kṛṣṇa means when he suggests an alternative to either head or heart as the reference point for action: “Mind intent on Me” (an injunction found throughout the dialogue).
Q: Doesn’t ‘Me’ refer to God, to Kṛṣṇa ?
A: Metaphorically it may do, but in truth there are not two – what I call ‘me’ and a second entity called Kṛṣṇa. ‘Me’ is the name for one’s own self at its highest, at its best. It can be spotted when one is asked to make a supreme effort – there is a noticeable ‘gathering’ of scattered attention to a point in preparation for the anticipated burst of effort. Acting from this point means that one side-steps the false choice of: should I follow my head, or should I follow my heart? It’s no accident that the Gītā text uses the word ‘Me’: when we read the words ‘mind intent on Me’ we are referring to our own selves. The Gītā is written precisely to ensure this effect as opposed to having us repeat: ‘Mind intent on God’. We are being enjoined to think of that part of ourselves that is the best, the highest, the most steady and resourceful – not weak, lustful, frightened, angry.
Q: What does my Highest Self have to say about the way out of my apparent block?
A: The very first advice in Chapter 2 is to stop being impotent and sentimental. It next indicates self-examination in order to be clear about the extent of our delusion: i.e. we view life and death, Self and duty as the wise see them. It then recommends transcending the influence of mechanical activity, inertia and purity – accompanied by “indifferent to the pairs of opposites, ever fixed in clarity, free from thoughts of acquisition and preservation, possessed of Self” (2.45). Then, in recognition of the difficulty in acting from such high standards, there is the recommendation of some fundamental preparatory steps: cultivate an attitude of equanimity in the face of success and failure and an attitude of discretion in action. This is a karma yoga lifestyle that will prepare the mind by quelling the drag of desires and aversions. The chapter ends by listing nine qualities that indicate when we have attained steady-mindedness and we’re on the right track.
Q: What are these qualities?
A: 1. Satisfaction in one’s own self (v55)
2. Composure in the face of pleasure and pain (v56)
3. Absence of attachment and aversion (v57)
4. Restraint of the senses (v58-60)
5. Mind intent on the Highest alone (v61-68)
6. Viewing the Universe as a dream (v69)
7. Unaffected by desire (v70)
8. Peaceful – without attachment, selfishness, vanity. (v71)
9. Absence of delusion (v72). It is not difficult to see how each one of these qualities contributes to an ability to act effectively – to act in a way that sustains and upholds without doing so at the expense of anyone else.
Q: So are these the qualities we need to practice?
A: It’s better to view them as thumbprints of a condition of steady-mindedness – natural to that state. Only from single, steady-mindedness is effective action possible. The common mental condition, however, is described as ‘many-branched and endless’. The recommended way of getting there is to work out ways of performing action with no attachment for fruit. Whatever comes one’s way will be accepted as ‘how it is’ and thereby not trigger elation or regret. (This karma yoga lifestyle is a theme that resurfaces throughout the text and the commentary on it.)
Q: Is it really possible to act if you don’t have a motive?
A: The Gītā doesn’t recommend that. Instead the third chapter sets out a menu of motives that are alternatives to the desire for personal gain, from acting out of small-minded, individualistic motives. Act as a sacrifice, as an example, as duty, as surrender to your highest Self. To return to the original assertion: this is about helping one live a life in which every action – not just the occasional one – is powerful and sustaining and nourishing for all. Thus sacrifice, duty, etc aren’t some ritualistic practice that exists because it is good for one’s soul or to get one a good place in the after-world. They exist as an aid to steady the mind. If fact, the Gītā brands as hypocrites those people who pay lip service the Truth but whose aim is to secure a good place in the after-world or power in his one. This is how these people are described in the commentary: “Who are they? The unwise, men of feeble minds who lack discrimination. They are addicted to the Vedic words that glorify or condemn and set forth works as well as the means for their implementation. They maintain there is nothing in the Vedas other than rites that promise heaven, cattle, wealth and the like. They are desire ridden… Heaven comes first in their scheme of things… Again these specific acts are the means by which enjoyments and power are won.”
Q: Is the karma yoga lifestyle all we need to be mentally prepared for self-knowledge, which is the very limitless happiness we seek?
A: On the simplest level, the hallmark of a karma yoga lifestyle will be that the action will not leave a trace. It will be conducted with love. The mind will be clear of distracting impediments. It will be characterised by absence of lust, hate, obsession, possession or agitative charge. It will never transgress dharma. Nothing will be held back – the whole action will be converted into its end goal. These are the visible results. There will, however, be one thing that this approach will not affect: it might cut out the stranglehold of appetites and aversions, but it will not quell the restlessness of mind.
Q: How is restlessness tackled?
A: By the practice of meditation and an attitude of worshipfulness. This means developing the ability to focus the mind and bring it back to the object of focus whenever it strays, and also by recognising that the results of our actions aren’t always what we expect: sometimes they are better than expected, sometimes worse, sometimes totally different! After it sinks in that we are never in control of what befalls us, what evolves quite naturally is an attitude of humility and innocent awe in the face of the natural order that delivers the results of action. We appreciate a law at work, we admire the delicate beauty of a flower or the complex dance of starlings flocking or the wind teasing autumn leaves. The human body is a wonder. Osmosis is a wonder. The movement of the planets is a wonder as is gravity and the Higgs Boson. The effect of music on the heart, the majesty of mountains, the freshness of water, the kindness of strangers – all are things to be thankful for. One becomes thankful for life and respectfulness grows. And, gradually, one becomes more at ease and more peaceful minded.
Q: Does this mean that the head-heart split is finally integrated?
A: Not necessarily, but two main impediments will have been eliminated: the pull of appetites/aversions and mental restlessness/agitation. There remains one more division that needs healing: the thinker-doer split. And this brings us back to the very opening injunction of the Gītā: ‘In every field of endeavour, act dharmically’. Every human being is hardwired with an understanding of certain universal values like non-injury, absence of pride, sincerity, cleanliness, etc. (To know if a value is one you hold, ask yourself: Would I like it if anyone does this to me? To know if it is universal ask: Can I imagine anyone liking this to be done to them?) And yet we sometimes go against these universal values. We hurt, we lie, we are puffed up. The knower knows one thing, the actor does another. This creates a deep split in us, which will not allow us to rest until it is healed. Living a life of values starts with knowing that we will never find rest without being integrated and thereby we learn the value of values.
Q: What’s the bottom line?
A: The person who is not a slave to desire (who has healed the head-heart split), who has achieved tranquillity (who is open-minded and open-hearted), who lives an ethical life (who has healed the thinker-doer split) is finally qualified to find the deep and lasting happiness that every human being thirst for. No activity is excluded but we’re asked to examine the attitude we bring to our day-to-day lives. No moralising. No injunctions. Just the operation of life under reason. This is practical living.
* NOTE: The interpretation of what the main players symbolise is from Paramahansa Yogananda’s ‘God Speaks to Arjuna’.