Monday, March 5, 2007

Week 07, Buddha, The Jataka, The Bhagavad-Gita

Notes on Buddha’s Three Cardinal Discourses and the Buddhist Jataka.

The Three Cardinal Discourses are entitled “Setting Rolling the Wheel of Truth,” “The Not-Self Characteristic,” and “The Fire Sermon.” One thing is obvious about Gautama Buddha, as accounts of his personality have come down to us: he is unencumbered by desire or ambition, and has disinvested himself of all stock in the body. Unlike George Costanza’s nutty father on Seinfeld, he doesn’t have to shout “serenity now!” out of desperation, but is truly free. Why, then, does he bother talking to others about spiritual matters? His reason for taking up the role of teacher and prophet is compassion for those who (to varying degrees) don't yet know what they need to know, and therefore do not live as they should. The ignorance and suffering of others, it seems, calls for a response on the part of those who have become enlightened, so liberation isn’t the same thing as irresponsibility.

How easy or how difficult does he make attainment of serenity sound for others, and what style does he adopt to convey his message? Much in Buddhism comes down to promoting acts of constructive self-annihilation and renunciation of materialism. The Four Noble Truths are that life is suffering, that suffering is a product of attachment or desire, that it’s possible to let go of such attachments, and finally, that there’s a specifiable path to follow towards liberation. That is a very simple, straightforward message: misdirected desire makes us unhappy, but right conduct and attitude can bring us peace. On the whole, Buddha counsels reorientation of one’s sensibilities and attentions away from the self and towards the community, though not in an ostentatious way. Buddhism is often called “the middle way” because it doesn’t preach extreme asceticism, but at the same time the concept of self-sacrifice for others’ welfare seems to be very important to this philosophy, which differs markedly from western outlooks that emphasize the primacy of the individual and the satisfactions of material accumulation. I will leave the specifics to the notes available online along with the sermons themselves, but basically, the Eightfold Path, as the first sermon sets them forth, consists in right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. (The offers lucid explications of these categories, but you can find them all over the Internet. See, for example, The Buddhist Reading Room, which provides a wealth of materials and links).

What is especially noteworthy about Buddha’s views on attachment is that he applies them to everything: attachment to anything whatsoever—our thoughts, perceptions, feelings, and so forth—and consequent appropriation of them as mine, belonging to me, leads to delusion and misery. Fundamentally, it seems, the self is a delusion. That is a point we can also find in the Baghavad-Gita, beautifully enunciated by the god Krishna. Buddhism differs in a number of significant ways from Hinduism (see Brian's Syllabus), but in some respects it is consonant with it, and the point I just made is a key area of agreement: the small-s “self” or autonomous ego is a function of our greedy and anxious desire for security and gain. To put the case lightly, Buddhism and Hinduism both seem to be on to our “control freak” tendencies and possessiveness.

As for stylistics, Buddha surely doesn’t construe knowledge in an Aristotelian or Baconian fashion: patient inductive research and the gradual building up of knowledge into theories are not his method or goal. He has already achieved serenity, and that isn’t something we can capture in fourfold or eightfold divisions, or classify in the usual western way. Nonetheless, even though we are talking about something language can't really express—absolute peace and an intuitive sense of truth, Buddha characterizes enlightenment's stages as attainable in degrees, with each degree of attainment giving us a kind of satisfaction, though not of the sort that comes from object-relations. The sermons’ divisions are heuristic (teaching) devices: they help Buddha convey his main point that suffering is a product of desire—we covet objects, we covet security, we turn people into objects, and so forth—and that it is eminently possible to overcome such tendencies. He conveys in a constructively paradoxical style a message about acts of letting-go and letting-happen, not making-happen. This distinction seems to be common to several eastern philosophies and religions: while the west is often about spiritual struggle, or “making-happen,” eastern wisdom has to do with the letting-go of delusions and the letting-happen of intuition and wisdom. That’s an overstatement, of course, but I think it’s worthwhile as an initial distinction.

With regard to The Jataka, its stories are about Buddha’s incarnations, so they teach us about Buddhist ethics. Purification is important, and so is a strong sense of community. Buddhism preaches respect for all creatures and rejects emphasis on human rank or caste (important considerations in Hinduism) and instead promotes egalitarianism and community. Buddhism privileges the spirit of self-sacrifice. The hare, for example, sacrifices its life in the flames, giving its body as alms, and this is described as a constructive, purifying act of self-annihilation, one that forces others to confront their own selfishness. In another of the tales, a selfish king sees the error of his ways when he is confronted with the courage of a monkey who gives his life to save his comrades; the monkey’s broken body becomes a bridge whereby they pass to safety and escape the king. Of course, there are always those who take kindness for weakness, but Buddha is offering an uplifting code of conduct that will inspire as many as possible: devotion to the welfare of others is the way. Buddhism is “worldly” in the best sense: it makes us think through how we treat others and consider the consequences of our behavior in that respect. The stories in The Jataka sometimes entail punishment, but that really isn’t what they are about. Punishing those who do wrong is undeniably satisfying for a while, but it’s almost certain to make them withdraw into their own ego-shell and “forget” or deny that they have done wrong—not exactly a recipe for spiritual enlightenment. The punishments suffered by the selfish characters in The Jataka (like the greedy merchant in the first tale) seem designed to enlighten, not simply to cause pain and distress.

Finally, a good question would be, “to what extent can we take Buddhist ethics seriously in a western market society, one based on the desires of consumers for many more “things” than they need?” Capitalism thrives not on the buying and selling of basic foodstuffs and other necessities but rather on the producing, selling, and buying of all that which goes beyond need. Capitalism thrives on the production not only of goods but, more importantly, of people’s desire for an endless series of goods above and beyond what they need. The market sells us buying and selling, consumption, as a lifestyle, a world view: it takes advantage of the fact that we are creatures of excess and extravagance. (No wonder King Lear gets so upset when his daughters take away his hundred knights: “O, reason not the need!” he exclaims, “Our basest beggars are in the poorest thing superfluous.”) So how can we accept Buddha’s antimaterialism and “not-self-ism”? Can we at least use those ideas as a hedge against confusing our love for commodified objects with an appreciation of genuine value? Buddha offers a perspective outside the system. (Differences aside, the same is true of Jesus, who rejected materialism and said, “Take no care for the morrow” and “My kingdom is not of this world.”) A modern, semi-Buddhist ethos might say something like, “well, if you’re going to be consumers, at least live lightly in the presence of the object-system; don’t get attached to the objects you buy and consume or take buying and consuming as the purpose of your lives.” To the contrary, the capitalist order’s proponents would surely prefer that we be chained to a process of serial obsession and consumption, and unable to think outside the commercial box in any way that threatens to restrict the flow of our desire for objects and the satisfactions they bring. Buddha himself was high-born and could have taken full advantage of wealth and position, but he rejected those things, and chose to help others. It is possible, after all, so perhaps enlightenment is to some degree attainable by anyone who understands that it is a worthy goal and who wants to achieve it. Of course, wisdom itself is commodifiable—we can turn anything into a “product,” and thereby neutralize the transformative potential it may otherwise have had. But why not end on a positive note? This will do:

The greatest achievement is selflessness.
The greatest worth is self-mastery.
The greatest quality is seeking to serve others.
The greatest precept is continual awareness.
The greatest medicine is the emptiness of everything.
The greatest action is not conforming with the world’s ways.
The greatest magic is transmuting the passions.
The greatest generosity is non-attachment.
The greatest goodness is a peaceful mind.
The greatest patience is humility.
The greatest effort is not concerned with results.
The greatest meditation is a mind that lets go.
The greatest wisdom is seeing through appearances.

Atisha, an 11 th-century Tibetan Buddhist master.
General Notes on The Bhagavad-Gita.

The Individual or “Self”: We tend to think of the individual person as a fully self-contained, autonomous agent. “I” am not “you,” and you and I are not “them.” Everybody, we like to say in our post-romantic fashion, is in at least some sense unique, and by this we seem to mean that something in us precedes any possible determination or shaping influence by outside forces like the society into which we have been born, the political order that subjects us to its imperatives, the expectations of our parents, the linguistic order, and so forth. We sometimes acknowledge that forces beyond ourselves are partly responsible for what we become, but that sort of acknowledgement usually makes us uncomfortable. Freud, Marx, Foucault and others have in their various ways insisted to our discomfiture that the forces that produce “us” as individuals are powerful and relatively autonomous—how does one combat the Unconscious, international capital, Ideological State Apparatuses, or Power? But how does The Bhagavad-Gita deal with the concept of the self? What constitutes it? It seems that the Gita author or authors would accept neither the idea of the self as an autonomous, unique agent nor the idea that forces such as “society” straightforwardly determine who we are as individuals. The Gita insistently claims that the self is a delusion stemming from ignorance and entirely dependent upon a strong desire to find security and permanence in our relationships with objects and with other people in their narrow selfhood. Ultimately, this desire boils down to fear of death. The only security an individual can truly hope to attain, counsels the Gita, is to be found in the knowledge that the small-s self has its source in the ultimate Self, Krishna. When a person realizes this truth, the fear of death recedes and a whole new world opens up. This is a key point in the Gita—when we no longer see the world “through selfish eyes,” so to speak, we see it in an entirely different, liberated manner. As William Blake says in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, “a fool sees not the same tree as a wise man sees.”

Why is the self a delusion? Well, it’s just another concept that doesn’t explain anything. Nietzsche makes a fine point when he says that the expression “lightning flashes” may be useful, but it’s also a lie. We perceive a “flashing” in the sky, and then we invent a noun (lightning) to account for the instrumental cause of that flashing. But “lightning” is just a word, an empty concept, an abstraction. To say “lightning flashes” is at best shorthand for “go see what I’m talking about: flashing,” but it doesn’t explain the flashing activity that we see. No, it makes us think we do, which in turn makes us arrogant because (supposedly) now we know so much. As country folk say, “it’s not what you don’t know that gets you in trouble, it’s what you think you know.” Try substituting for “lightning flashes” the phrase “I do” or “self performs action,” and you can easily understand the Hindu and Buddhist notion of why the individual ego is a delusion: the noun “self” is an ex post facto construction we use to explain things and relationships that we really don’t understand. Arjuna says to Krishna something like, “I am the doer of my deeds, and am deeply attached to and responsible for their results,” and the latter entirely disagrees with that assessment. You only covet the fruit of your actions if you cling to the notion of self as an entity that covets, that tries to extend itself by means of things and deeds that in fact limit and attenuate, that hinder the path to enlightenment.

Consequentiality of Actions: Based on our delusory notion of the autonomous self, w e generally make a close connection between what we are and what we do. We like to say that as individuals with free will, we are responsible for what we have done and are doing. Deeds entail consequences and (supposedly) reveal the essence of a person. Existentialism, one of the most popular western philosophies, encourages such notions by means of its Sartrean dictum, “essence follows existence.” We might even say that we treat the deed like a thing, a commodity, with which our identity gets caught up to the point of identification: you are your car, you are your deed! This is a powerful tendency in modern western societies, with their strong emphasis on competition for the right to accumulate material goods, the achievement of carefully specified goals often tied to or allied with economic production and consumption, and the eventual accountability of all “evildoers” at the bar of justice. What does this book say about such a viewpoint? It counsels action, to be sure, but action in a peculiarly detached manner: action in what the text calls “the spirit of worship.” Can you act in such a way that you don’t expect to own or control the results of your actions? If so, you’re acting in the way the Gita suggests you should. If you act on the basis of some kind of “reward/punishment” or “success/failure” scheme, if you expect recognition and admiration for what you do, then the Gita would suggest that you’re not acting in the right spirit. This sort of selfish action is somewhat like that of a mediocre actor who “plays to the crowd” rather than just trying to be true to the part.

The Path to Enlightenment: On the surface, this seems simple— Krishna says all you really need to do is appreciate him, listen to his wisdom, and concentrate on him. If you do that, you’ll escape the seemingly endless cycle of death and rebirth. Too much spiritual storm and stress may turn a person into a fanatic who can’t act in the detached manner that Krishna advocates. I don’t think the Gita’s idea of “devotion” (which is the best path, in the text’s view) amounts to anything like zealotry—if salvation is pursued anxiously and obsessively, the seeker will move farther and farther away from enlightenment and liberation. Perhaps that is where some westerners go astray when they make contact with eastern philosophy: they become fanatics determined to cast off immediately everything they ever knew or did. Inevitably, I suspect, this fanaticism leads to disillusionment. Hindu religion involves devotion, but wisdom seems to be more a matter of “letting things happen” than of anxiously trying to make them happen. Of course, it makes paradoxical sense to point out that it takes a lot of work before a person can just “let truth happen.”

Structure: the book is dialogic, a conversation between the charioteer-god Krishna and Arjuna the warrior. As Krishna unfolds his truths, Arjuna plays the practical man and asks, “yes, but we are restless, how can we live up to all this advice?” Which question elicits variations and alternatives from Krishna . We move towards a penultimate vision of Krishna as both Destroyer and Preserver. He is life and death, beautiful and mild, terrible as the lion killing its prey. This vision is too much for Arjuna—be careful what you wish for! So Krishna becomes mild again, and conversational. The text returns to the theme of wisdom and the right path, and before it ends we are given something of a jeremiad against the losers who don’t get the idea. But the book doesn’t end on such a sour note, returning instead to the necessity of renunciation and the achievement of right attitude and understanding.

Text’s Status: How does this book compare to The Bible with regard to the status posited for the text? Well, the latter work makes more claims for itself as necessary for salvation. But the Gita sets itself forth as a husk you can work through to get at the kernel of truth, so that you won’t need the printed words anymore. The Four Gospels deal heavily in winnowing the wheat from the chaff; they are consequential, linear, black and white in their morality. Forgiveness is possible and there’s much magnificence of gesture, but individual sinners are closely bound to their actions. One might see Jesus as a transgressive figure, a revolutionary who breaks the law to fulfill it—but the strict law of observance reigns and is turned inward, as when Jesus says that even to think of adultery is already to have committed it.

Chapter-by- Chapter Notes on The Bhagavad-Gita.

Edition: The Bhagavad-Gita. Trans. Stephen Mitchell. New York : Three Rivers Press, 2000. ISBN 0—609-81034-0. Page numbers do not apply to the Norton Anthology of World Literature selections, but the commentary is compatible.

Chapter 1. Arjuna’s Despair.

41-45. Dhritarashtra, father of the Kaurava warriors, sits beyond the story’s frame, requesting from the poet Sanjaya that he relate what happened in the fateful days of the Battle of Kurukshetra. He, too, will have a chance to derive enlightenment from the story. As Sanjaya recounts things, Arjuna asks Krishna to drive his chariot to a commanding place where he may view the entire field of battle. Time seems to stand still, opening a space for sustained reflection. Arjuna is not yet enlightened, and needs to know the precise relationship between himself and the actions he is about to perform. At this point, he is overwhelmed, and grieves over the imminent loss of his kindred in the battle, and the confusion and disorder he believes will necessarily result.

Chapter 2. The Practice of Yoga.

46-53. To clear away the thicket of Arjuna’s illusions, Krishna must first help him redefine what is meant by the term “self” and what is meant by “action.” He tells him to let go of his grief, which stems from attachment to his kindred in their perishable, mortal form. The truth is that such a connection is selfish—Arjuna is thinking more of himself than of the others whose loss he fears. Krishna seems to counsel that while family and caste are important, they are not to be fetishized for their own sake, or for the comfort and advantage they bring to oneself. The general comments I made above about “the self” apply well to this chapter. The Self transcends ego or personhood and cannot die; it is as imperishable as modern physics says matter is indestructible. Some of the language in this chapter may remind us of Jesus in The Gospels. For example, Mark 3.31-35: 3:31 There came then his brethren and his mother, and, standing without, sent unto him, calling him. 3:32 And the multitude sat about him, and they said unto him, Behold, thy mother and thy brethren without seek for thee. 3:33 And he answered them, saying, Who is my mother, or my brethren? 3:34 And he looked round about on them which sat about him, and said, Behold my mother and my brethren! 3:35 For whosoever shall do the will of God, the same is my brother, and my sister, and mother.

Saint Augustine follows this lead in The Confessions, too, in the way he deals with the passing of his mother Monica—he treats her with great regard, but at the same time he does not cling to the mortal element in her, saying that it would be selfish and an insult to God to behave that way. Krishna doesn’t preach stoicism; what he suggests is that Arjuna should act with detachment and that he should treat whatever feelings or sensations that come to him with indifference. He should do his duty as a Kshatriya warrior, and not worry about the so-called death of his relatives. At 52, Krishna speaks to Arjuna in terms he can understand: not to do your caste-based duty is shameful, it constitutes failure and disgrace.

53-60. What is the wisdom of yoga? All of the yoga types— of action, wisdom, devotion, and meditation, as they’re usually described—counsel that whatever a person does or thinks, it should be done or thought in “the spirit of worship,” and not for the sake of the results. Taking unwise account of the results to be attained from actions leads only to enslavement to desire and ambition, whether one’s own desires and ambitions or those of others. Reading the Hindu scriptures with some ulterior motive in mind, it seems, would be just as misguided as acting for personal gain. Regarding religion in this way only leads to empty ritualism and, in the end, disillusionment. The text is very clear on these points at page 54: “Act for action’s sake,” it says, and “unnecessary are all scriptures to someone who has seen the truth.” From 56-60, Krishna explains that the essence of yoga is rest, meditation, detachment. He calls for a reorientation of purpose when a person acts: the one who acts should be centered not in him- or herself, but rather in Krishna , the all-encompassing Self.

Chapter 3. The Yoga of Action (Karma Yoga).

61-63. Arjuna does not yet understand Krishna’s message, it seems, since he sees only paradox in the command to act: action is necessary, but action, he thinks, must be bad because it enslaves the doer. So on 62-63, Krishna varies the message, saying that action is necessary, but that so long as a person acts in the spirit of worship, it will not have the results Arjuna fears.

65-66. Krishna suggests that those who know about yoga do not try to impose enlightenment, but inspire by example.

66-70. Krishna himself keeps the cosmos going by means of action, as he says at 66, so inaction is not the aim. Human beings must act, but they must not covet the results or outcomes; they must not attach their desires to their deeds, and try to control what happens after they have acted. Krishna posits a reciprocal relationship between gods and human beings: “by worship you will nourish the gods / and the gods will nourish you in return” (63). What is the cause of “action”? The three gunas or qualities that arise from nature: sattva (spiritual, having to do with purity and spirituality), rajas (worldly, having to do with action and process) and tamas (unholy, having to do with inertia). It is not the ego that we should consider the performer of actions, but the gunas, which, if I understand correctly, exist in all things and bind the body to the spirit; as Krishna says on pg. 158, they “bind to the mortal body / the deathless embodied Self.” (This is an important consideration in Indian dietary practice, by the way—a healthy diet reinforces the balance between mind and body, while an unhealthy one destroys that balance. See, for example, the clear explication about yoga, the gunas and cooking at

Towards the end of the chapter, Krishna explains why a certain withdrawal from the senses is advisable—he says that desire strikes us first through our senses, so people must learn to control their reactions to sensory experience. Again, stoicism or simply “not feeling anything” doesn’t seem to be what is counseled here. Rather, the key thing is how a person responds to sensory experience, feelings and desires. Embedded in this text is a hierarchical notion of the mind being more valuable than the body.

Chapter 4. The Yoga of Wisdom (Jñana Yoga).

73. Krishna’s method entails variation and elaboration, the partial unfolding of truths to which the text returns repeatedly. Here he explains that all honest action leads to him. Indeed, a person rooted in wisdom is already “there,” so the book’s employment of location-words is more a device than an actuality; the “path” described is circular, not linear.

75. Here Krishna thoroughly redefines the concept “action.” Action isn’t simply “doing things”; this kind of busy-action may amount to doing nothing at all. In fact, says Krishna , in this sense the wise do nothing at all since wisdom consumes the content of their actions. As an American Secretary of State once said, “don’t just do something—stand there!”

76-77. The various “offerings”—sacrifice, the objects of the senses, action, etc.—almost don’t matter; what matters is how you do what you do. Right-spirited action is worship. What Krishna advises here resembles the preaching of Buddhists: a constructive, gentle form of self-annihilation. Experience itself can be considered an offering to Krishna if it’s approached rightly. Those who act honestly are, he says, “freed of themselves” (77).

78-79. Krishna says that the seeker should find a teacher. How to learn? Well, first the person who wants to learn must know that learning consists not in the accumulation of facts and so forth, but rather in the clearing away of deeply rooted illusions that stem from self and society. A person teaches not so much by imparting truth but rather by modeling how to learn. Oscar Wilde’s quip is relevant: “Education is an admirable thing. But it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught.” (“A Few Maxims for the Instruction of the Over-Educated.” The Writings of Oscar Wilde. Ed. Isobel Murray. Oxford : Oxford UP, 1989. 570. ISBN-10: 019281978-X.)

Chapter 5. The Yoga of Renunciation.

81-87. This chapter furthers the transition away from what we would call narrowly construed Cartesian dualism (cogito, ergo sum or “I think; therefore, I am” being the key precept). It seems that the errors of connecting doers with actions, being attached to one’s desires, and being attached to the results of actions, are symptoms of this primal intellectual mistake. In my view, the text values the things of the mind and spirit over the body, but I also think it warns us against deriving from this hierarchy a narrow, ego-centered conception of the self as something purely intrapersonal. The point isn’t to dismiss one’s embodied existence altogether so as to exalt Reason or anything of that sort; it’s to understand how the mind and body work together and how the individual is related to constructions that go well beyond the narrow confines of the “little-s” self. The chapter’s central statement occurs on page 83: when a person offers his actions to Krishna , the text says, “sin / rolls off him, as drops of water / roll off a lotus leaf.” Such a person has shed the illusion of self and thereby connected to the cosmic Self that is Krishna , and purification is a natural result of the transformation. I suppose someone determined to deconstruct the text’s metaphysics would suggest that this Self is the ultimate “center that is not the center,” i.e. that it’s the metaphysical concept set beyond investigation so as to ground everything else Krishna says. That would be a fair point, but I find it more interesting to attend to the manner in which the text’s representational and dialogic strategies try to slip away from this difficulty and to produce genuine enlightenment. The representation of infinity and absolutes in religious texts may be mostly intended to instill a certain perspective on things, a way of living in the world without losing hope, not to deliver something that really cannot be conveyed in language or by means of images. The point is to keep the mind and spirit open, not to shut it down. The vastness of the Gita’s time frames swamps teleological thinking—its cycles seem run in billions of years, a frame too great for the mind to comprehend. In Job, the protagonist is instilled with such a perspective after God recounts his sublimities: Job says simply that God has spoken “things too wonderful” for a mortal to understand, and that silence is the only appropriate response.

Chapter 6. The Yoga of Meditation (Dhyana Yoga).

88-98. It seems as if the yoga of action is to be pursued only so that one can reach a level of maturity sufficient to practice the yoga of meditation, which yields serenity. Reigning in the mind is necessary since it’s natural for it to wander during meditation. If possible, one is supposed to reach a temporary state of silence wherein the flow of language and emotion stops. A person who has ever attended to this incessant internal chatter for long will know how difficult it is to make it stop or even to slow it down, even for a moment. As the Shakers say, “‘tis a gift to be simple, ‘tis a gift to be free.” Western people seem addicted to self-consciousness. The romantic poets analyze and sing well regarding the potentially infinite and maddening regression of acts of self-consciousness: “I am thinking about myself thinking about myself thinking about myself . . . .” Where does that attempt to gain complete mastery over the psyche lead but to despair? How is it supposed to engraft a person into a state of wisdom, or rather (to be more accurate) into a process of thinking that yields wisdom? No wonder poets like Shelley pine because they can’t become like a skylark or a nightingale, even for an instant—see his excellent poem “To a Sky-lark.” It isn’t too difficult to think of analogies for the meditative transformation Krishna describes: Heidegger’s wonderful line about that need to refine one’s thinking to the point where one can perceive “a single star shining in the sky” (like Krishna’s “single object” on page 90) bracketing out all else, captures something of the transformation. More generally, how many people have ever really seen the night sky, free of interference and diminution by city lights, human language, and anything else that might get in the way? To do so is to be liberated from oneself, at least for a time; the stars have power to draw us beyond the confines of ourselves: self-annihilation, so to speak. A need for serenity and silence need not be construed as a flight into mysticism and irrationalism: instead, opening up a space for contemplation involves the bracketing-out of quotidian things like language, ordinary eventuality, and polluted sensory perception; where this cannot be accomplished, it involves knowing how to deal with what cannot be avoided so as not to be bound to it and determined by it. Finally, the chapter makes a broad offer of what in western terms might be called salvation: Krishna says that nobody is ever utterly lost; even the one who wanders may “cleanse himself” of sin “through many lifetimes” (97), and thereby reach the goal of liberation.

Chapter 7. Wisdom and Realization.

99-101. This chapter begins with mention of the rarity of seeking, and the even greater rarity of attaining, a true understanding of Krishna . At 101, the god explains that he is the excellence in all things, though he is not himself bounded by such excellence: “I am the taste in water,” he says. Desire is sanctioned so long as it is in accordance with duty. Apparently, one can find Krishna in anything excellent—”I am the arc of the ball as it flies through the air; I am the sound of the ball as it drops through the hoop / without touching the rim.” How’s that for a basketball analogy? Or perhaps Krishna is the best thought one has while reading a text, the one that comes and goes as quick as lightning—illustrating Moses Maimonides’ conception of learning as taking place through a series of illuminations, of “flashings” that come and then leave one in the dark again.

102-05. Krishna describes the sage as one who has sought the truth and who is now at rest. Page 104 is central to this chapter since Krishna declares himself “beyond all knowing”—a fact obscured to “fools” who, tied to the cycles of their own desire and aversion, believe he can be reduced or reified to a limited form: something, that is, that they can wrap their narrow minds around.

Chapter 8. Absolute Freedom.

106-112. Freedom is described on 107 at “union with the deathless” Self of Krishna, which can be realized only by a kind of devotion not reducible to mere ritual. At 110, we again see the vastness of the text’s time frames and the shifting or ever-expanding quality of its conceptual frameworks: Krishna says that “one single night of Brahma / lasts more than four billion years” and that “beyond this unmanifest nature / is another unmanifest state, / a primal existence that is not / destroyed when all things dissolve.” This kind of successive revelation of Krishna’s dimensionality I sometimes try to represent by drawing a series of concentric circles—every time the last dimension of reality seems to have been revealed, you have to draw another circle. Or picture yourself sitting somewhere, and then “situate” that scene in a much larger one encompassing your surroundings, and then the still larger one that would encompass that, and so forth, ad infinitum. The chapter ends with the thought that a wise person, dying, “reaches / the supreme, primordial place” (112). I suppose that the Gita author would agree with William Blake in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell that birth is a kind of “fall” into the realm of materiality, and that “if the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.”

Chapter 9. The Secret of Life.

113-20. This chapter prepares the way for Krishna’s subsequent self-descriptions and manifestations. The “secret” that Krishna promises to unveil is that he pervades all things, is the source of all things. On 118-19, he makes the startlingly broad claim that “all those who worship / other gods, with deep faith, / are really worshiping me, / even if they don’t know it,” and concludes by saying that “no one who truly / loves me will ever be lost.”

Chapter 10. Divine Manifestations.

121-30. This chapter is partly about how Arjuna may visualize Krishna , and again, it prepares us for the “cosmic vision” of the eleventh chapter. Krishna offers many beautiful and exalting images—the lion, the flower, the wind, the river Ganges ; he also employs more ineffable language such as “time” (127), “death that devours all things” (128), and “the wisdom of the wise” (129). He ends the chapter with the words, “I support the whole universe / with a single fragment of myself” (130). On the whole, the chapter offers a series of intuitions, not one coherent image or description of Krishna , because the point we are to understand is that he is ultimately not representable in any finite shape, either in images or in language. Krishna also explains that he is both Vishnu the Preserver and Shiva the Destroyer, the two gods Shelley invokes in his “Ode to the West Wind”: “ Wild Spirit, which art moving every where; / Destroyer and preserver; hear, O, hear!”

Chapter 11. The Cosmic Vision.

When Arjuna asks to see Krishna as he really is, the latter endows him with special eyes with which to view this celestial wonder. Arjuna gets infinitely more than he bargained for since Krishna shows his divine aspects as the embodiment of the Hindu Trinity of Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Preserver, and Shiva the Destroyer. We are told that Arjuna “saw the whole universe enfolded” (134). This sight is properly infinite, so the text’s descriptive language seems designed more to instill wonder at the sublimity of Krishna’s true nature than actually to body it forth. Only Arjuna, with his temporarily adequate eyes, can see what is described to us. The sight does not bring comfort to Arjuna; it brings terror at Krishna’s “billion-fanged mouths” that “blaze like the fires of doomsday” (136). When Arjuna asks for a spoken description, Krishna declares, “I am death, shatterer of worlds, / annihilating all things” (138) and drives home to Arjuna the imperative to act, to do his duty as a member of the Kshatriya caste, a warrior: indeed, explains Krishna, he himself has already acted, and the battle has already taken place: all the warriors will die, and Arjuna the limited being is not truly the doer of the deeds that “will occur.” This “dazzling, infinite, primal” (141) form of Krishna cannot be endured long, so at Arjuna’s request he returns to his milder dimensions, and explains that only through devotion—not by “study or rites / or alms or ascetic practice” (143)—can he be known as he is.

Chapter 12. The Yoga of Devotion (Bhakti Yoga).

Krishna privileges devotion—centeredness on him, offering up one’s actions to him—as the best way to achieve mokhsha or liberation and escape the cycle of death and rebirth. Mystical worship of “the unmanifest” is more arduous for embodied beings like humans; the devotion to which Krishna refers seems to consist in devotion to him “as if” he were himself an embodied being, the way one human being might be devoted to another to the point of never allowing other imperatives to get in the way. The spirit of “surrender” is greater, Krishna explains, than practice, meditation, or knowledge (146)—such spiritual efforts are worthwhile techniques, not the thing itself. But ultimately, Krishna says with great generosity, all spiritual roads lead to him, though some may require longer and more difficult journeys than others. The supreme contentment he describes is, he says, beyond any human feeling—beyond even what we call “joy.”

Chapter 13. The Field and Its Knower.

The field is the body, with its ten senses. This is the main idea of the chapter—knowledge and its object are interrelated, it seems. Desire and aversion are included in the field; they are the two main things to watch out for because they have harmful effects on a person’s capacity for devotion to Krishna .

The ten senses or indriyas: Swami Jnaneshvara Bharati says that a human being is “like a building with ten doors”: the five exit doors or karmendriyas are eliminating, reproducing, moving, grasping, and speaking. The five entrance doors or jnanendriyas are the cognitive senses of smelling, tasting, touching, seeing, and hearing. The point is that one has to become aware of all these in order to become detached from them, to turn inward (pratyahara) by means of meditation. Simple denial of sensory experience isn’t good—rather, one gradually understands that the senses, though necessary, are ultimately unreliable and don’t give the only kind of knowledge. We are more than the body.

This chapter again says that the self is not the cause of actions; actions arise from Nature. Here is how the text explains this point: “Nature gives rise / to changes in the field and to gunas. // Nature is the cause of any / activity in the body; / the Self is the cause of any / feelings of pleasure or pain” (153). A bit later, the Gita says that it is Nature, and not the self, that causes actions (155). Again, unitary notions about the ego, some abstract self that makes things happen, are delusory; an act is the coming together and parting of many forces in motion. The terms “Self” and “self” are important to distinguish in this book: the capital-letter Self is a cosmic entity and is not to be reduced to Nature or the gunas (which are best explained in the next book); it is that eternal part of us that transcends ego and personhood and temporality, the part that is pervaded by Krishna . It is not the limited, bounded ego.

Chapter 14. The Three Gunas.

The three gunas are the three prime qualities of nature—sattva (spiritual), rajas (worldly) and tamas (unholy), which constitute all life (158). They “bind” the body to the deathless Self. The point is that the little-s self is too narrow a conception—the capital-s Self is a trans-subjective reality; we are all part of a vast cosmic Self. I think the idea is that the gunas, the prime qualities of nature, are the “doers” of actions. This is not the same thing as fatalism or determinism—there has to be something that is aware of itself to make such a determination as “I am not the doer of the deed.” It is sometimes said that karma is all about action. That’s what the word means, but I believe we are not to take it as a western-style cause/effect or “sin” model of transgression and punishment. The yoga of devotion can take us beyond concern with action. Pure devotion leads us to become unattached to action, realizing that your “little-s self” is not the center of the universe. We come to look upon the realm of action in a serene, detached manner. So Arjuna the warrior should participate in war, and yet, in the highest possible sense, not be “doing” anything at all. This is to redefine the concept of action in a profound way.

Chapter 15. The Ultimate Person.

Visualization technique becomes important again here: the Gita pictures the upside-down world tree, “this world of sorrow.” Krishna is said to be the supreme Person, beyond eternity. The author isn’t satisfied with even the grandest, most capacious concept because concepts, by their very nature and function, must contain, limit, and narrow things down to a level of specificity and simplicity at which we think we understand them. This is a useful function—we tame and comprehend the world by abstraction, but it is not an end in itself. Krishna says he is beyond beyond. “How utterly utter,” as the C19 aesthete would say, making fun of superlative language. Whoever understands this philosophical maneuver and representational strategy, it seems, knows Krishna and is devoted to him.

Chapter 16. Divine Traits and Demonic Traits.

This chapter seems almost condemnatory, though that’s understandable: desire, anger, and greed are the three main gates to hell. They all result, I presume, in attachment to the material realm in a narrow and selfish way. The demonic are people who do attach themselves to their desires and their aversions, seeing themselves as the doers and the center of all things. If they understood, I think, they would not behave the way they do: the fundamental problem is one of misunderstanding, not knowing the true nature and cause of action.

Chapter 17. Three Kinds of Faith.

Everything in the realm of Nature can be divided into sattvic, rajasic, and tamasic: food, worship, etc.

Chapter 18. Freedom Through Renunciation.

Relinquishing is a more important distinction than renunciation because beyond the issue of renouncing desire, one is still confronted with orienting oneself with any action whatsoever—even, for example, worship. An embodied being can’t give up action altogether; such a being can only relinquish the results of the action. You worship for worship’s sake, not because you hope to get something from it or want to feel upright, etc.

A final thought: it’s tempting, with our western vocabulary, to say that this Hindu text advocates self-overcoming. That’s one way of looking at it, but it doesn’t quite capture what I think Krishna is saying. Self-overcoming sounds like struggle—the Germanic idea that life is always striving to be other (Leben ist andersstreben.) But isn’t that to say that desire is the essence of life?—that we are never satisfied with who we are, always want something more, and so forth? It makes us sound like country folk who yearn to visit the big city, like those characters in the musical Oklahoma . That doesn’t sound Krishna-like to me. I think he’s saying the necessary adjustment isn’t so much to struggle as to let go and become free. Think of the common Buddhist example of how understanding happens: you concentrate and concentrate on one of those funny-looking dual-images, and all of a sudden, you just see it properly; you understand or become unconfused. Your delusions have slipped away and have been forgotten, and understanding comes peacefully. It isn’t a matter of arduous “getting of knowledge,” as when we stock our minds with facts; it is a matter of letting understanding happen. Eastern philosophy and religion sometimes call for intense self-discipline in meditation, yoga, etc., but the emphasis is on the fact that these practices allow immediate and intuitive understanding. Not building, but clearing away and opening up, is the aim.

211-21. Mohandas Gandhi’s essay “The Message of the Gita” interprets the Gita as non-violent. I believe this approach stems from Gandhi’s decision to read the text in light of present-day needs, in a time when consciousness has moved beyond the conservative, caste-based system within which the Gita was created. It’s obvious that Krishna counsels Arjuna to do his duty as a member of the warrior caste, but Gandhi’s point is that on the whole the text teaches us about “perfection” (212) and “self-realization” (213). At 218, Gandhi further says that acting without desire to control the outcome of one’s actions, as the Gita surely does, leads a person to reject violence and untruth as principles of action. Both involve an attempt to force or deceive others into getting them to do what you want them to do. He concludes with the thought that “Like man, the meaning of great writings undergoes evolution.”

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