Bhagavad Gita – how to advance in Yoga

Gita the path is stillness.png

In the original Sanskrit, the word translated here as ‘work’ is ‘karma’. In the the preceding chapters Krishna has taught Arjuna about spiritual practice during activities, ie. karma yoga, in which the mind is made calm during activities by various means.

Now, in Chapter 6, Krishna teaches Arjuna that eventually the path of work leads to the path of stillness, and it is through stillness of mind that one advances in yoga. The rest of Chapter 6 explains in more details how this is to be done.

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Q. Don’t you think surrender is the best way, as it is the essence of the 4 yogas?

Q. Don’t you think surrender is the best way, as it is the essence of the 4 yogas?

Tom: It depends. It’s true that surrender is essential for most, and it becomes more prevalent, especially as spiritually matures. Surrender is a wonderful way. But surrender itself ends in stillness of mind.

However some cannot surrender, and need to do karma yoga first. Others need to do hatha yoga and meditation. Others are more intellectually inclined and do viveka, or discrimination between the changing and unchanging, as per Jnana yoga.

The best yoga is the one you actually do.

Q. How to practice the 4 yogas?

Q. Don’t all the yogas go together? It’s not like you can either chose Bhakti (devotion) or Karma (action) yoga, but you practice them both together. Is that correct?

Tom: Well for some it starts with a single yoga, for example bhakti yoga, and then as bhakti yoga progresses, all the yogas end up coming together. This is the same for all the yogas. Usually people start off with an affinity for one of the yogas, be it, raja yoga (meditation), bhakti yoga, karma yoga or jnana (knowledge) yoga.

As the yoga progresses, the body-mind becomes purer, more integrated, and naturally develops an affinity for one of more of the other yogas. Eventually all the yogas come together, merging in stillness of mind (samadhi).

The ultimate yoga is for the ego to simply be still, dormant, and in that dormancy, through the ‘grace of God’, it can collapse, at least that’s how it appears. It can be seen there is no ego, there is no doer/author of actions.

You see, in reality all of this is false. There never was any ignorance. There is no ignorance. Ignorance is of the ego. Ignorance is the ego. Ignorance, yoga and liberation are all the ego’s projections, and the ego itself is a fiction. Who is searching, and for what?

Has anyone else spotted this glaring error in the Bhagavad Gita? Plus a summary of the Gita’s teachings

One of my favourite spiritual books is the Bhagavad Gita. It, perhaps, is the reason I stumbled into my love of what could be called Eastern Spirituality or Eastern Mysticism, and the Gita was one of the first few holy texts I read. It contains a number of different but intricately related teachings that, together, knit the fabric for a beautiful teaching. It also has an epic and somewhat unusual setting, for a spiritual text at least, namely the battleground of Kurukshetra in which Arjuna is seeking advice prior to going into battle from his charioteer, Krishna. It just so happens that Krishna is in fact God incarnate, and so a wonderful dialogue and spiritual discourse commences.

I do not consider the Gita to be a perfect text, for a number of reasons which I will not delve into in this post, but for many years it has seemed to me that there is a glaring error in its current format, one that I have not heard much of, and one that can be easily rectified. In fact, when this error is seen and rectified, the Gita, in my opinion, is much more satisfying to read, albeit still with its imperfections.

What is the error? It is that Chapters 3 and 4 are the wrong way round. It took me a while to figure this out, and I wonder if this idea has occurred to other people too? A quick google search has not revealed to me that other people have noticed this. However, surely for any discerning reader, the transition from Chapter 2 to Chapter 3 is jarring in the very least. I remember feeling this jarring sensation when I first read the Gita, but as I said, it took me a while to figure out its resolution.

Let me explain:

Chapter 1 sets the scene of the ensuing battle, and it is in Chapter 2 that the main spiritual teaching begins. After Arjuna collapses in a fit of despair, panic and disillusionment and asks Krishna for help, Krishna gives a broad outline of the main teachings of the Gita. Krishna tells Arjuna that he need not fear, that the essence of him is eternal and indestructible, and that he should perform his noble duty with honour. Krishna, still in Chapter 2, then goes on to describe the path to spiritual liberation, the path of yoga in which one should be equanimous of mind amidst daily life and also practice withdrawing the senses and enter into a meditative samadhi in which the mind is controlled and allowed to become still, unphased by sense-objects and desires. Krishna spends a considerable number of verses on this theme, finally stating that this will lead to the attainment of Brahman, or the Absolute or God, in which there is no suffering or delusion.

However, when we come to chapter 3, seemingly oblivious to what Krishna has just instructed him, Arjuna asks him a completely unrelated question:

3.1 O Krishna, if you say that knowledge is superior to action, why ask me to fight in this terrible battle?

Krishna has not spoken in any great length about knowledge thus far, the main emphasis of the teaching being on yoga and meditative samadhi. Krishna has also not explicitly said that knowledge is superior to action, something that comes later in chapter 4 (4.33, see below). Admittedly, in the next verse of chapter 3 Arjuna does say he is confused:

3.2 My mind is confused, your words seem contradictory. Please clarify to me which path will lead me to the greatest good?

If we take the question at face value, Arjuna is implying that Krishna has taught two seemingly opposed teachings and Arjuna is unsure of how these can be reconciled. However, thus far, there has not been any substantive conflicting teaching given. Of course, all these issues are easily and happily resolved when we simply switch the position of Chapters 3 and 4. Before we look at how this resolution occurs, lets see Krishna’s response to Arjuna, still in Chapter 3:

3.3 Krishna said: Arjuna, as I have told you before, there are two paths of faith: the path of knowledge (Jnana Yoga) for the philosophically inclined, and the path of action (Karma Yoga) for the active.

Without swapping Chapters 3 and 4 around, this verse makes little sense. Krishna has not yet outlined two yogas, that of Jnana Yoga and Karma Yoga. He does, however, outline these in Chapter 4.

Let us now look at Chapter 4 – what I think should actually be Chapter 3. If we recall, Chapter 2 ends with Krishna speaking at length on the path of meditative yoga in which the senses should be withdrawn, the mind controlled and stilled, and desires for sense-pleasures effaced. This, Krishna says, will lead to Brahman, or God. Chapter 4 opens as follows, logically continuing from this conclusion in Chapter 2:

4.1 Krishna said: I taught this eternal yoga to Vivasvan [the sun god]; Vivasvan taught it to Manu [the father of humanity]; Manu passed it to King Iksvaku

This makes complete sense as the start of Chapter 3 and would avoid the jarring switch to Arjuna’s question about the two paths that are not described until later on in the current text. What Krishna explains in Chapter 4 is a logical continuance of explaining the origins of the yoga described in the latter part of Chapter 2.

In Chapter 4, Krishna goes on to reveal to Arjuna that he, Krishna, is not merely a trusted friend and charioteer, but actually God-incarnate who manifests in every age when he is needed to impart spiritual wisdom to humanity. He briefly describes the benefits of worshipping Him and other Gods, and introduces and explains the teaching on the path of action or Karma Yoga starting at around verse 4.14 to around 4.32.

Then, starting at verse 4.33 through to the last verse 4.42, Krishna introduces and explains the path of knowledge (Jnana). Verse 4.33 is particularly important, as it implies that Jnana is a higher path than that of Karma:

4.33 Better than sacrifice of material goods is sacrifice in Jnana, for action culminates in Jnana

This now makes sense of Arjuna’s question in 3.1 when he states that Krishna has placed knowledge higher than action. The last two verses of the chapter, verses 4.41 and 4.42, are also potentially quite confusing, as 4.41 states that action should be renounced, while 4.42 encourages Arjuna to stand and fight:

4.41 One who has given up action through yoga, and has dispelled doubts by knowledge, one who lives in the Self, is not bound by action (karma).

4.42 Therefore, Arjuna, with the sword of knowledge (jnana) remove the doubts in yourself, and taking refuge in yoga, stand and fight.

Given this context, with Krishna having just explained the two seemingly different paths of karma yoga and jnana yoga, and then ended his discourse by stating actions are to be renounced (4.41), and then to stand and fight (4.42), it is completely understandable that Arjuna is confused. His questions in verses 3.1 and 3.2 (see above) make complete sense now and we lose that jarring sensation that was previously present when we go from Chapter 2 to Chapter 3. Krishna’s response in 3.3 also makes more sense in this context, as if we switch chapters 3 and 4, Krishna has just told Arjuna of the two paths: ‘Arjuna, as I have told you before, there are two paths…jnana yoga…and karma yoga..’.

Chapter 3 (what should in my view be Chapter 4) then explains and extols the virtues and benefits the path of karma yoga more fully.

At the start of Chapter 5 Arjuna continues along this line of questioning, asking Krishna:

5.1 First you recommend giving up work [ie. chapter 2 in which sense withdrawal is advocated] and then you recommend work in yoga [ie. chapter 3 in which karma yoga is advocated]. Please tell me clearly which path is best.

Again, this makes more sense if Chapter 3 was actually Chapter 4 – otherwise why wait a whole chapter before asking this question? The whole thing flows much more like a normal conversation with Chapters 3 and 4 swapped around. Chapter 5 then says how both paths lead to the same goal, but that the path of action/Karma Yoga is superior.

Only at the end of Chapter 5 is the topic of meditation and withdrawal of the senses from the sense objects again taken up in verse 5.26-5.28.

Chapter 6 then goes on to explain how both paths end up with the mind being stilled, and that to start off with, the path is yoga in action, but the path ends with stillness of mind (verse 6.3). The rest of Chapter 6 is devoted to the path of meditation and stillness of mind, with a few verses now introducing the teachings of Bhakti (devotion to or love of God) in verses 6.29-6.32.

With just the simple swapping around of chapters 3 and 4, in my view the potency and philosophical narrative of the Bhagavad Gita greatly enhanced. Themes are introduced in a wonderfully natural and logical way, with one theme leading into another –  a beautiful and coherent development of ideas, as follows: from an overview of the teachings in Chapter 2, to an introduction to the two main paths in Chapter 4, then firstly focussing on the path of action in Chapters 3 and 5, and then to the more advanced path of meditation in Chapter 6, and then the introduction to Bhakti, a theme that is progressively developed in the next 6 chapters (chapters 7 to 12).

So my suggested order is as follows:

  • Chapter 1: the battle scene is set and Arjuna falls into panic and despair at the thought of going to war.
  • Chapter 2: reassurance given to Arjuna by Krisha who also gives an overview of the path, with a large focus on the yoga of renunciation, stillness of mind and meditation in the latter part of the chapter.
  • Chapter 4: Krishna explains how this yoga has been taught to previous generations and then introduces the two paths of Karma Yoga and Jnana Yoga.
  • Chapter 3: Arjuna asks which of these two paths is superior. Krishna explains the value of Karma Yoga and explains this more fully.
  • Chapter 5: Arjuna persists with his question about which path is better, and Krishna states both paths lead to the same goal, but Karma Yoga is better.
  • Chapter 6: Krishna then states that beginners start with Karma yoga, but as one advances stillness of mind and the yoga of meditation becomes more important. Themes of Bhakti are introduced.
  • Chapter 7-12: The theme of Bhakti is further introduced and the nature of God and devotional worship is elaborated upon.
  • Chapters 13-18: the path of knowledge, special or specific teachings, and concluding instructions are given.

So, what do you think? Is the way I am looking at it correct? Even though I have been reading and studying these texts for over 20 years, I do not consider myself to be an expert and I am not a sanskrit scholar either. My suggestion is to simply swap around chapters 3 and 4 when you read the Bhagavad Gita. Please let me know your views in the comments.

Namaste and Hare Krishna!

Om Shanti Shanti Shanti!

Does Karma really exist?

Robert Adams Advaita

The following is by Robert Adams:

Does Karma really exist? I know that you can say, “No it doesn’t.” But as long as you believe that you are a body and mind, as long as you feel the world to be real, you cannot fool yourself. Do not lie to yourself. If the world perturbs you, if people bother you, if things annoy you, if you are reacting to conditions this means that you believe you are a body going through these experiences. And as long as you are going through experiences you are in karma. You are experiencing the karma that put you here as a body. It is only  when you have realized the self that there is no karma.

Therefore do not go around telling people that there is no karma, it will give them license to do anything they like. Feeling there is no retribution, there is no effect for their deeds. This is not true as long as you believe you are a body. For there are laws of the universe that respond to your actions. Karma means action. And as long as you believe you are the actor you will have to experience the results of the karma.

So in this particular life you are experiencing the results of not only the karma of this experience but of previous lives. Previous lives also come into effect whenever you believe you are the body.

There are only two ways to destroy the karma.

One is to inquire, “To whom the karma comes? Who is experiencing this karma?”

And the other way is to surrender completely to God. Totally surrender your life to God. God is within you as you. You therefore surrender everything to the self. Thy will be done. You begin to see that as long as you have God to surrender to, you need not worry, you need not fear. Everything will be alright.

Robert Adams: a beautiful teaching

Robert_Adams

Robert Adams:

The point I’m trying to make is that the Sages understood that at this age the way to realization, the way to unfoldment, the way to liberation, the easiest way is through namah japa, the chanting of God’s name. This they say was the thing to do in this age. This is the meditation to do in this age. Namah japa, chanting of God’s name. As an example, “Sri Ram, Jai Ram, Jai Jai Ram.” This is what human beings were supposed to do in this age to awaken.

As the years went by people such as Buddha, Shankara, Jesus, some others, people that we know about like Sri Ramana Maharshi, Nisargadatta Maharaj and others including myself came to conclusion that what is needed in this age is a combination of teachings.

Jnana Marga, the path of wisdom is the highest stage of all yogas. That combined with Bhakti Marga, the path of devotion and Karma Marga, the path of service. These are the stages, these are the principles that we have to learn and understand. Therefore what I do is teach those three methods together, combined.

When you teach Jnana Marga by itself as many so-called beings, gurus are doing today it becomes a bunch of rhetoric. It builds up the ego, it doesn’t destroy it. Jnana Marga by itself becomes cold and calculating. People start to feel as if they are superior to others. It is called also the talking school. Where people talk to each other debate issues about Jnana Marga. Get involved in heated discussions, debates, arguments and you get absolutely nowhere.

It is called also the talking school. Where people talk to each other debate issues about Jnana Marga. Get involved in heated discussions, debates, arguments and you get absolutely nowhere.

If you teach and you learn Bhakti Marga, the path of devotion by itself you can become a fool. Where you become devoted to all the statues and all the trees and become devoted to all the gurus and you have just blind devotion, without knowledge. So that is not sufficient.

When you practice Karma Bhakta, the path of service to humanity. You become the servant of other bodies. The servant of the people. Yet you become confused because you don’t really know who to help. You really don’t know to whom to give service to. There are so many poor people, homeless people, deprived people, whom shall you serve? And again you become confused.

But when you combine all of them together, Jnana Marga, Bhakti Marga and Karma Marga you have a beautiful teaching.

But when you combine all of them together, Jnana Marga, Bhakti Marga and Karma Marga you have a beautiful teaching.

Ramana Maharshi: a blemish to complete surrender

Ramana smiling

Ramana Maharshi:

Know well that even performing tapas (spiritual practice) and yoga with the intention ‘I should become an instrument in the hands of the Lord Siva’ is a blemish to complete self-surrender, which is the highest form of being in His service.
(Guru Vachaka Kovai, verse 471)

Sri Sadhu Om’s Comments:

Since even the thought ‘I am an instrument in the Lord’s hand’ is a means by which the ego retains its individuality, it is directly opposed to the spirit of complete self-surrender, the ‘I’-lessness. Are there not many good-natured people who engage themselves in prayers, worship, yoga and such virtuous acts with the aim of achieving power from God and doing good to the world as one divinely commissioned? It is exposed here that even such endeavours are egotistical and hence contrary to self-surrender.

How yoga leads to Enlightenment

yoga.jpg
An illustration dated from the early 20th century, drawn to accompany Yoga Yajnavalkya, an imporant foundational text on yoga from the 12th century CE.

In my previous two posts (here and here) I’ve described the aims of the of yoga as being twofold:

  1. Knowledge: to see/know/realise that the notion of being a separate doer-entity is an illusion
  2. Peace: to become peaceful (sattvic) and remove compulsive desires

Each of these two aims of yoga are there to solve a basic problem. First, as long as you take yourself to be a doer, you suffer. This is corrected with Knowledge as defined above. Note that this Knowledge is not knowledge of something new (additive or positive knowledge) but it is realising something is false (negative knowledge).

And second, as long as you are a slave to compulsive desires, right action (ethical and intelligent action in accordance with natural law or dharma) will not fully manifest, and the flow of the innate natural intelligence will be impeded and distorted by these addictive and compulsive tendencies (vasanas). This is corrected by becoming sattvic (peaceful).

There are many forms of yoga and some can be very technical and detailed. However in general, some yogas work upon the body, others on the breath/voice, and some focus more on the mind. However the main purpose of yoga is to affect the mind, as this is where the core problems described above lie.  Those yogas that work primarily upon the body, voice or breath do so in order to directly or indirectly effect the mind to which they are connected.

Each type of yoga strives to achieve the two points mentioned above in a slightly different way. Often there is a conceptual framework within which the yoga operates. When the aim of the yoga has been achieved (ie. by achieving the two points above), then the conceptual framework within which the yoga operated can be dismantled and left behind.

buddha.jpg
(1) Knowledge and (2) Peace, personified here by a visual and stylised  image of the Buddha

Improving your posture

Let’s give a simple example of how concepts, even when false, can aid us. If you want to improve your posture an expert may recommend you imagine a length of string attached to the crown of your head, pulling the top of your head upwards towards the sky/ceiling. When you imagine this, you naturally straighten your posture in line with the visualised imaginary piece of string.

After practicing this for sometime, your posture improved and now you no longer have to imagine a piece of string. At no point did you actually thinks there was a piece of string actually there, but you can see how this concept was useful to correct your posture.

Concepts in Yoga

Lets take a look at some of the main traditional forms of yoga to see how this works. In the sections below there are many aspects of the yoga I have not gone into, as the purpose of this text is to demonstrate how yoga can use concepts to achieve the two goals mentioned above, and then the concepts can be thrown away, to be picked up again only when this needs to be taught to someone else.

Jnana Yoga

Jnana means knowledge in Sanskrit, and Jnana Yoga is the Yoga of Knowledge.

In this yoga the concept of Brahman is introduced and is initially equated as being being-consciousness-bliss (sat-chit-ananda). Brahman is initially defined as being our basic sense of presence-awareness and the teachings show this to be (apparently) Unchanging, Ever-Present/Permanent, Eternal, Infinite and Indestructible. This is stark contrast to the subtle and gross objects that appear within it which are ever-changing, temporary, transient, limited and subject to creation and destruction.

The Jnana yogi is taught to identify him/herself as that Unchanging Absolute Brahman and not to identify as the ephemeral objects. Through this process of de-identification with the body-mind and identification with that which does not change, insight into experience occurs.

We start to realise that the body-mind entity that we formerly took ourself to be actually is not us at all. We thought that we we responsible for our thoughts and action, whereas from the point of view of Brahman or Absolute Consciousness, it is seen that there is no doer and the body-mind-entity functions by itself. At this point the doer-entity is seen to be non-existant, and Knowledge as defined above in objective (1) arises.

At this point the essential job of jnana yoga has been completed, and the concepts of Brahman as being an unchanging essence can then be dropped and life goes on, living itself. There is no attachment to concepts such as the relative and absolute or concepts of the infinite, all of which are ultimately unverifiable in our experience.

Incidentally, once the doer has seen to be non-existent, sattva tends to arise over time as the processes that fuel compulsive desires are slowly wiped away, and so objective (2) is also indirectly achieved.

We can see that in Jnana yoga the concept of an Absolute Brahman has been useful to us to serve a purpose. However ultimately we cannot know for sure from our experience alone that there is such as thing as the Absolute Unchanging Brahman. Because Knowledge, ie. seeing through the doer, has occurred, Freedom is innately realised, and concepts are not clung to, and no beliefs are required.

Karma Yoga

Karma means action in Sanskrit, and Karma Yoga is the Yoga of Action.

There are a few ways karma yoga can be performed according to the traditional scriptures, but one of them is to set up the concept of a personal God, an all-powerful entity that is responsible for everything and every action in the universe. The Karma yogi is taught to realise that it is this God that ultimately has control and not the limited body-mind that it thinks itself to be.

The karma yogi therefore practices gladly accepting everything that comes his or her way as a gift from God, working to the best of their ability, but not being attached to the results of their actions.

As the Karma yogi starts to learn to be happy regardless of what is happening, this has the direct result of eroding away compulsive desires, converting them into non-compulsive desires, and so eventually objective (2) is achieved.

Thereafter, over time, the sense of identification with the body-mind entity loosens and is seen through. It can become apparent to the Karma yogi that actions happen by themselves: thoughts happen by themselves, but there is no thinker, just a spontaneous thought occurring, one by one, in quick succession. Similarly actions happen by themselves: limbs move, lips speak in the same way that dogs bark, leaves rustle and clouds float by – all happens spontaneously, and there is no doer. Here Knowledge arises.

Now the yoga has completed its aims: Freedom has been realised and we are seen to be free from suffering – we are seen to have always been free from suffering and the world. Now we no longer have to worry about concept of an infinite all-powerful personal God that is ultimately unknowable and unverifiable.

Again, the concept of the infinite God, as with the concept of the Unchanging Indestructible Brahman for Jnana yoga, can be seen to have been a useful tool, aiding the seeker to attain Liberation, but now no longer needs to be believed in.


So here are just two examples of how concepts are utilised in yoga to achieve a greater end than perhaps could have been achieved without them.

Remember, don’t cling to concepts, beliefs and ideas. Use them by all means, but when you no longer need them, let them go. Ultimately, stay with what you know, stay with what’s true, question your beliefs, be unafraid to admit if you’re wrong, and don’t pretend to know something you don’t. Keeping to these guidelines will safeguard you from dogma, and the suffering that results from it.

Also see:
How spiritual teachings work
The essence of yoga
The paradox of yoga
Can you know something is infinite?

The paradox of yoga

The word yoga can be used to describe a series of specific methods which aid and direct the seeker towards the goal of the ending of suffering or of attaining realisation. So let me start by saying something quite obvious: all of the yogas* are practices to be performed or actions to be done. They are therefore meant to be performed by a person who thinks themselves to be a separate doer-entity.

The very existence of the (illusory) separate doer implies a duality – in fact the imagined doer is the essence of duality, the first conceptual step from which all other dualistic notions proceed from. The duality that it sets up is between that of the subject (the doer) and objects (the objects of the world in which actions are done).

The aim of all yogas is, through practice, to facilitate a seeing/realisation that the separate doer-entity is an illusion. And therein lies the apparent paradox. Yoga is action undertaken by the (imaginary) separate doer in order to see through this illusion of doership.

*Traditionally there are several key yogas outlined in the vedic texts, the main ones being Jnana Yoga (yoga of knowledge or understanding), Karma Yoga (yoga of action), Bhakti Yoga (yoga of devotion) and Raja Yoga (the king of yogas).

Also see:
How yoga works
The essence of yoga
Ramana Maharshi: The 4 paths to freedom (the 4 yogas)