I don’t propose to do a sort of scamper through the text with academic footnotes, but I will try and say something on a few of the main points in the Gita and some things that will actually be useful. It is very easy to read these texts like one of those sort of nodding, Chinese, Mandarins: “Yes, the holy texts. It means something, I expect.” There are riddles and mysteries, and Shankara says, “By concentration and by stilling the mind and by purifying the essence, the basis, of the mind, these things will stand out clearly.” Now I propose to mention some of the practices, which are just hinted at in the text itself.
Before I start, I’ll give you a few hints that might be useful to you about the so-called ‘Eastern mind’. There is no Eastern mind – the mind or the culture or tradition of India is entirely different from the culture and tradition of China and from Japan. I will illustrate this a little bit for you. The date of the Gita is the subject of debate but at least it goes back to 200BC. Some historians – and the whole thing is based on very flimsy little shreds of evidence – think that perhaps 700BC or 800BC.
There was a hero named Krishna, who worshipped a god named Bhagavat and after his death he became called Bhagavat Krishna. These are just guesses. However there is one actual piece of evidence, which is a very interesting one. Krishna is the teacher in the Gita and the name essentially means dark – and the other name for Krishna is his father’s name, adapted. For example, you have a name like Ben-Gurion, the son of Gurion, or Bar-Abbas in the Bible – the son of the father it means. So Krishna’s other name – his father was Vasudeva – was Vāsudeva, which means son of Vasudeva. There’s a grammar of the Sanskrit language written by a great grammarian called Panini, which standardised the language. He wrote that at least 500BC. It is a masterpiece of linguistic analysis, which has never been surpassed even today, and it is still used in the studies of the Sanskrit language by Western philologists and linguists.
In 500BC this minute analysis of classical Sanskrit was made. This fact tells you something about India. There is no other country or tradition which thought of analysing its own language, and constructing a grammar of its own language, until it started teaching foreigners. The Greeks, for instance – although highly intelligent people, it never occurred to them to make a Greek grammar. They taught rhetoric, which would involve correct speech, but they never analysed. The Chinese are highly intelligent people, but it never occurred to them to make an analysis. Japan has a language of poetry – some of the greatest masterpieces of Japanese literature go back to something like 1000AD. It never occurred to them to make a grammar. But the Indians in 500BC had made the grammar. The other languages and their traditions made a grammar when they wanted to teach foreigners. The first Greek grammar was at Alexandria to teach foreigners Greek. One of the earliest – and still the best – grammars of the Japanese language was made by the Jesuits about 1600. So the fact that the Indians made this masterpiece of analysis in 500BC tells you that there’s a tradition of analysis, precise analysis, in the Indian tradition, which is a unique characteristic.
There is another tradition, what you might call the mystical tradition, and that is represented by the upanishads, these holy texts, which refer to metaphysical realities and especially to the self, which they think is an illusory restriction. The individual self is an illusory restriction and those restrictions can be removed. The Upanishads were not presented in precise analytical language at all. They were mystical insights.
Those two traditions, the mystical tradition with these wonderful, riddling insights and this very precise, analytical tradition, began to meet. One of the great meeting places was the philosopher Shankara in 600AD. He revered the mystical tradition and was himself a yogi – and he confirmed the experiments, the mystical experiments. But he had to present them to the world of his time in a precise, analytical way, so he did this in his great commentaries on the upanishads and the Gita.
The upanishads were records of seekers of Truth. It is mostly a calm atmosphere in the upanishads. An upanishad will begin, like the Mundaka, with four or five men, one a great householder. They discuss absolute reality, and they fail to come to a conclusion, so they decide to go to a great sage for instruction. In one of the very earliest of the upanishads, the Great Forest Upanishad, the wife of a teacher, Maitreyi (there was no prejudice against women in the early days) used to speak and study Brahman, the absolute reality. The time comes when the sage, who is a wealthy householder, is going to retire into the forest, and he says, “Now I will make over the money and the wealth to you and the other wife.” She says, “Will this wealth make me immortal?” He said, “No. Your life will be like the life of any other wealthy person.” So she says, “Then tell me what you know which will make me immortal.” He says, “Then sit down. As I teach you, meditate, enter into concentration and meditation on what I say.” It is a calm atmosphere of search.
© Trevor Leggett
Talks in this series are:
Part 1 : Bhagavad Gita 03.04.1991
Part 2 : There is a self which is immortal
Part 3 : Reincarnation is beautiful doctrine
Part 4 : Strong passions and fears