Bhagavad Gita – the Yoga of despondency

Bhagavad Gita – the Yoga of despondency


 The opening chapter of the [Bhagavad] Gita is called “The Yoga of Despondency”. The word is viṣāda, which means something like sinking down, of depression, despair, and yet it’s called a yoga. Arjuna is confronted with a situation in which he is one of the leading figures of one side of a civil war. His own kinsfolk are divided between the two sides. He will have to fight against not only his own kinsmen, but also revered teachers. The battle is about to begin. He’s overwhelmed with a feeling of grief.

Even if his side wins, it will mean the death of many figures of reverence and respect and historical association for him. Even if they win, life will hardly be worth living. He’s overcome by a sense of the sin of fighting. In the first chapter, he speaks to his charioteer, Krishna, and says, “We should not slay these, our kinsfolk. Even if they do not see how wrong it is because their intelligence is destroyed by greed. But we see, and we should turn back on this wickedness. Better for me, unresisting and unarmed, to be killed by their weapons.”

There’s much more on the same strain. The despondency of Arjuna later in the Gita is condemned as an effect of darkness. It seems very spiritual, complete pacifism on a spiritual basis. Even if they do not see, we see the wickedness of fighting, but it’s condemned. In Chapter 14, verse 13 the agent of darkness, of tamas is described, without yoga, unteachable, stabdha. Tricky, dishonest, lazy, desponding – the same word: viṣāda, and postponing. He puts off until tomorrow, next year – ‘It’s not meant we should do it now.’ This is an agent of darkness, desponding. Whatever we do, it will be no good. In Chapter 18, there’s a furnace of darkness, tamas, by which a dying man does not let go of sleep. Fear – by which he clings to fear. Sorrow – by which he clings to sorrow. Despondency – by which he clings to hopelessness. The same word, viṣāda. Yet the same despondency is called a yoga or a means of spiritual training.

He raises spiritual considerations saying it is a sin and even if the other side don’t see it, still we see it, being more spiritually advanced, and we should not resist them. We should not increase the violence by fighting. Krishna tells him at the end of the Gita, “Even if you think, ‘I will not fight’, through your egoism your resolve is deluded.” The word is mithya, deluded. “Your nature will force you to fight. By your karma, your delusive self-nature created by past action, you will be held fast. What, through delusion you seek not to do, you will do. Even against your will.”

He means that even if Arjuna resolved not to fight, the moment he began to see his brothers and friends, bleeding from the wounds, he would become infuriated, because he’s a warrior and he would, in fact, fight. In that case, why have the Gita at all? He is determined not to fight. “The purpose of the Gita,” Krishna says, ” is to free him from this weakness,” as Krishna calls it. He says, “You should must do your duty”, but if he’s going to do his duty and fight anyway, why is the teacher of the Gita giving it.

Krishna explains there are different ways of fighting. The brother of Arjuna, Bhima, fights full of hatred of the enemy. Arjuna would fight like that, if he fought from his self-nature as a warrior. But Krishna tells him to fight: “Cast all your actions on the Lord, with your mind concentrated on the supreme Self in you, Adhyatma. Free from hopes, free from selfishness, free from fever, fight.” This is quite different from the fighting of Bhima. Krishna says at the beginning of the teaching, in reply to Arjuna’s eloquent declaration of the spirituality of complete pacifism, “You are speaking the words of the wise.” Shri Krishna approves these words but he says, “You’re speaking them, because you are shaken by grief. The wise are not shaken by grief. You are grieving over what should not be grieved over.” Our teacher said, “And so, everything Arjuna says is nonsense. The outer words, though wise, do not correspond to the inner state. These words have no meaning uttered, because the inner state is not that of the outer words.”

Shri Shankara in many of his commentaries, explains that the experience of the world is based on an impossibility. The confusion of two things which cannot be mixed up together, subject and object. “Nevertheless,” he says, “it’s natural for man to undergo this delusion. The whole perception of the world,” he says, “is an illusion.” Now, Dr. Johnson used to refute this. On a famous occasion when Boswell presented to him Berkeley’s [esse est percipi ] theory that everything [subjective idealism] is merely an idea. He said, “It can’t be refuted. Everything we know is only an idea.”

Dr. Johnson said, “I refute it thus,” and he kicked a stone post with tremendous force so that he rebounded from it. “I refute it thus. You don’t rebound from an idea.” Johnson was very pleased with this response. On another occasion, he made it to another man [Edmund Burke]. There was no stone post there, but the other man was arguing that everything is merely an idea. Dr. Johnson again refuted and said, ” I refute it thus,” and he kicked a wall with tremendous force so that he rebounded from it. Then he woke up! The same argument would apply. The answer is you do rebound from an idea if you are just an idea yourself. He didn’t tell it to Boswell – he thought it might confuse him.

What can be a fact at one time becomes an illusion at another. Shankara explains this as showing that the whole of our perceptions are unreliable and illusory. India, in the ancient traditions, is an island called Jambu-dvipa. All that was accepted by the Indians as a fact, a historical fact. Although now, of course, India is a subcontinent firmly joined to Asia by the highest mountains in the world. It was a fact. Then a mystical German scientist proposed the idea that continents were drifting throughout the place. That America and Africa and Europe had once been joined, and this was refuted with tremendous force. This fantasy was refuted with tremendous force by Sir Harold Jeffries in a four volume book 1924 called The Earth, which absolutely smashed the idea of continental drift and reduced it not merely to an error, but into something ridiculous.

India couldn’t possibly have been an island, because the continents came up from something solid. They didn’t move. Even a movement of a few 100 kilometres was something quite exceptional. The idea that India had once been an island: the ancient Indian tradition, was a mere legend. Sir Harold Jefferies, one of the most prominent astronomers and geophysicists, completely demolished it. But in 1964, new evidence, entirely different evidence came up, and the idea of continental drift is now firmly established. India was an island. That it was an island was a fact. Once, that was simply an extraordinary and fantastic idea. Then once again, it is now a fact that it was an island. It used to be, in the 1930s, embarrassing when Dr. Shastri mentioned the ancient tradition with approval and that was dismissed as mere legend, but it turns out now that it was correct.

Wegener’s Theory of Continental Drift was not merely refuted, but ridiculed. Sir William Bragg, the Nobel Prize winner, said when he was a young man he mischievously quoted, showing an article by Wegener to one of the most prominent geophysicists at the time and Bragg said this was the only time in his life he’d ever seen a man actually foam at the mouth. They say they’re objective. They say nothing holy, everything should be investigated, but in fact, it isn’t so.

In a famous book called, The Psychology of Religious Mysticism, Leuba, although he concentrates mainly on the Christian mystics, he refers to the Yogis and he dismisses them. He says, “They report sensations like heat during their trance states. There’s no doubt they suffer from many delusions.” This has recently been the subject of an investigation by Harvard Medical School, and the United States Army. They have found that some of the Yogis living in very cold areas are able, in fact, to bring the temperature of the body up by seven degrees in their meditations. This is now known to be a fact. Leuba never investigated it, he simply dismissed it:  “It’s an illusion. It’s a fantasy.” They say they have open minds, but as a Japanese researcher once remarked of the Western research people, “They say they have open minds, but in actual fact, for many things they have already closed their minds, with or without evidence.”

Shankara holds nothing sacred – no holy ground that mustn’t be investigated. From shruti to anubhuta. From revelation that is heard from those who have experienced it in the past, to present experience. In his commentary on the Gita, on Chapter 16 he says, “Knowledge is knowing about things, such as the Atman, the Supreme Self, from the holy texts, and from the teacher. Yoga means confirming these things by actual experience in one-pointed meditation.” There’s no question of saying, “This is revelation, this is not to be investigated.” He says, “No, it must be. Must be confirmed in a man’s own experience.” This is quite different from the dismissive attitude of many of the Western scientists who claim to be fearless investigators. For instance, Russell remarked of the visions of Christian saints, “One man fasts and sees visions. Another man drinks heavily and sees snakes. I see no more reason to think one is any more cognitive than the other. In both cases, the conditions are not normal.”

If we think, it’s not a very intelligent remark. Why does he assume that the normal conditions will give better information necessarily, than abnormal conditions? He’s so contemptuous of the astronomers of Padua who refused to look through Galileo’s telescope. Russell makes quite an argument over that, but it was exactly the same argument which the astronomers of Padua produced.

They said, “When you take a wineglass in a cabin, and lift it, you see light. The curved glass produces flecks of light, so to see specks of light in the cabin that you see through the curved glass is a well-known illusion. Here’s this man, Galileo, he’s got curved glasses too, and he’s looking through them, and he’s seeing flecks of light, and he’s calling them the moons of Jupiter. The vision is not normal. There’s no more reason to believe in Galileo’s observations through the telescope, than it is to believe in the observations through a wineglass in a cabin, the conditions are not normal.”

Shankara says, “Experiments have to be done. Spiritual experiments, when they’re done, will be fruitful. They have definite results.” Not when they are simply laid down as dogmas. Then there has to be a unity of the outer words and the inner experience and Shankara lays great stress on this in many places in his commentaries. That is not a question of believing some dogma, but having as an experience something quite different, of reducing the theoretical declaration of the holy text into actual experience through, as he says, “one-pointed meditation.”

The second riddle in the opening verses of the Gita is, why is it Arjuna? The same conditions apply to Arjuna’s brothers, Yudhishthira and Bhima. Why don’t they become overcome with grief and guilt and a sense of unspirituality about fighting a civil war against their kinsmen? Why is it Arjuna? At this point, it’s not generally dwelt on, it’s assumed that Arjuna must’ve been more spiritual, but the Mahabharata makes it clear that that’s not so. Arjuna is interested and wonders what happens to his prayers and a boon is given to him so that he’ll know. He and his brother Bhima pray together. Arjuna always conducts the worship with the implements of gold and silver in the traditional way, with the proper rituals, and the flowers and the incense in the proper ceremony, and performs his worship, but Bhima never does anything like that. He simply stands with his hands clasped, and his eyes closed for a few minutes, and then he goes about his business. Arjuna is granted a vision. He wants to know what happens to their prayers and he sees this great courtyard, in which angels are loading masses of flowers onto these ornamental carts. A voice tells him that these are the prayers of the two Pandava brothers, Arjuna and Bhima. They’re being loaded onto the carts to be taken to decorate the halls of the Most High. When he looks around, he sees a little posy of flowers.

There’s a mass covering the courtyard, and then there’s a little posy. He realizes these are the prayers of his brother Bhima, but he looks scarcely and he sees that it has a beauty of its own. Then one of the attendants says, “Quick, quick. Comrades, we must clear this quickly before the next shower comes.” Arjuna says, “It’s all right. I shall not be worshipping until this evening.” The attendant says, “Oh, we can take any number of those little posies, but Bhima is about to pray again. The whole courtyard will be showered with flowers.” It’s quite clear that Bhima is far superior to Arjuna in devotion. The Mahabharata makes this clear in several ways. Bhima is an incarnation of Hanuman in the Kali Yuga. Although the violence has predominance over the worship and devotion in Kali Yuga, for those moments those minutes, he becomes Hanuman again. He is a perfect incarnation of devotion. Yudhishthira surpasses Arjuna in dharma, just as Bhima far surpasses Arjuna in devotion. This is illustrated by the story: when the Pandava brothers and Draupadi are in the snows, they’re making a pilgrimage, which will bring great good. Yudhishthira is in the lead, then Bhima, then Arjuna, then the others, and the others gradually fall down in the snow one by one. They can’t keep up.

Both Swami Rama Tirtha and our teacher, Dr. Shastri comment on this passage. The leader, Yudhishthira, doesn’t turn back to help them. He must continue with that path to do, as our teacher said, immense good to the world. They fall, because of some sin in their lives. Arjuna falls, because he boasted. He was a great boaster, and he boasted about what he would do in the battles, and he failed to fulfil his boast. The next one is Bhima. Bhima then falls, because he fought with hatred. The only one who remains is Yudhishthira . He’s faultless in dharma. Yudhishthira far surpasses Arjuna in dharma, as Bhima surpasses him in devotion – then why is it Arjuna, to whom this spiritual crisis comes, and to whom the teachings of the Gita are revealed? Why not Yudhishthira?

Our teacher, on this point, told us about his teacher, Shri Dada. He would sometimes call for some reeds. He was going to write, and they cut the reed diagonally to use it as a pen.

Our teacher said, “We would bring several reeds and put them before him. He would pick up one, and there was no reason. Wasn’t particularly excellent, there was nothing particularly to distinguish, but he would just pick up one and he would use that, and the others would not be used.” There is a saying in the Far East, about Kobo Daishi, who was one of the greatest calligraphers of the Chinese writing, which is an art higher even than that of painting. He was one of the masters and also a fully realized saint and rishi. “Kobo, a great master of calligraphy, never chooses his brush. Whatever brush that is there, he simply picks that up and uses it. However imperfect it is, because he’s a great master, he can use it and he can make a perfect piece of calligraphy with it. Kobo never chooses a brush.”

A Zen master has recently written an autobiography, which has an interesting parallel to this same point that our teacher told us about Shri Dadaji and the reed. This man was a schoolboy during the war, but he was conscripted at the very end of the war. For the final stand, which was going to be made on the main island, in which it was expected that the whole nation would die until the Emperor made the broadcast saying the nation was to surrender. He describes how they screwed themselves up to be willing to die. Then they found that everything they had believed in was now regarded as criminal and their leaders were being tried as war criminals. Everything seemed to fall into ruins. He came back and he says, “I felt there was nothing to live for, that everything was rubbish. The people were all rubbish, including myself.”

He tried to find some purpose, some meaning in life and failed. He passed a Zen temple one day and he saw the priest who was a famous master, then without pupils, in the garden. Something about him struck him and he asked for an interview, which the old man gave him. He said, “For an hour and a half, I poured out my feelings. He never spoke a word. Then when I was exhausted, he said to me, ‘You trust nothing and no one then?'” I said “No.” The teacher said, “Do you think you could trust me?” He says with delightful frankness, “I thought to myself, ‘A silly old fool. I only met him two hours ago. How can I possibly trust him?'” But if I say that, of course he’ll throw me out.” I said, “Well, yes, I trust you.”

The old teacher said, “Well, I’ll give you your first test. We’re going to sweep the garden.” The Japanese Zen gardens are planted with trees, of which the leaves fall, all year round. There’s always some sweeping of the leaves to do. This is partly also to protect the moss which needs some shade to grow in. Moss is a symbol of spiritual purification. Its growth can’t be forced, but if the weeds are all removed, then it grows surprisingly quickly. The temple gardens are simply pure moss, some of them different colours. It covers the whole garden.

The two of them, he says “We swept all the leaves, stones, bits of earth and moss, loose moss into a big pile. I said, “What should I do with this rubbish?” The teacher said, “There’s no rubbish.” He said, “What?” The teacher said, “Well, get some of those sacks by the house.” He got them. The teacher took up the dried leaves and pressed them down into the sacks, trod on them and said, “These will be used to heat the bath.” Then the teacher sorted out bits of earth and little loose bits of moss that had come off during the sweeping. He went around the garden and he pressed  them down in places where the earth had been a little depressed or the moss had come loose. Then there were only the stones left. The writer said, “Well, anyway, these are rubbish.” But the teacher picked them up. He went to underneath the eaves of the temple where the water drops down. It tends to wash away the earth – impact of the raindrops. The teacher put these stones, adding them to the ones that were already there. That breaks the force of the rain, so it doesn’t wash away the earth. As the pupil looked he realized they make a beautiful pattern around the edge of the temple building. It was all disposed of.

The teacher said, “When it’s in this proper place, there’s no rubbish. People are not rubbish, either. No one’s rubbish. If they’re in a proper role.” He says he thought about this one remark a long time. He thought how to find the proper role. It’s not just where one is, not just what one would think, “Well, here I am. This is how I am.” There is rubbish, but when there’s an inspiration in a spiritual tradition, that is fulfilling a role, a spiritual role, and it’s maintaining the whole of the spiritual edifice. Then it’s not rubbish. He thought and thought, and he said, “From then on, I slowly began to trust the teacher.”

How to find the proper role? There has to be inspiration. Shri Dada says, “Every man must be able to go into voluntary mental and nervous relaxation, and concentrate his mind on a symbol of God, whether it be a word, a concept or an image. It is this prolonged silence of the soul which brings before man the patterns of what he is to create, the archetypes of his contribution, to the inner and outer world.”

Well, we can think, ‘Oh well, for geniuses, yes, no doubt, but the ordinary people…’ The examples from history were used extensively by our teacher, Dr. Shastri. He told us to read history looking for examples of the spiritual laws.

The Italian cities of the thirteenth century had become independent of the Holy Roman Empire, but they never rose to the level of thinking of themselves as parts of one country, Italy. They were simply competing city-states and they were ruled by quarrelling great families, usually two, as in Shakespeare’s play, Romeo and Juliet, whose spite prevented a proper use of the abilities of the city. One family would be dominant and if in the other family there was also some man who had great ability as a prince’s general or an architect, instead of promoting him the dominant family would think, ‘No, he’s not of our family we don’t like him.’ Much of the abilities of the cities was lost. In this way, they destroyed themselves.

In the end, someone had an inspiration. When they had been under the Holy Roman Empire they’d be controlled by foreigners, Germans and French. The foreigners had appointed a Chief Magistrate who held the supreme power in that city. The cities, by and large, had been rather successful, because the foreigner was impartial. He could promote ability wherever he saw it. In the end, these cities began to get the custom of electing a Supreme Magistrate and that Supreme Magistrate would always be a foreigner from some other city so that he would be impartial. He would be above the petty spite and malice and jealousy from which they couldn’t free themselves.

At this time, this was, say,1200 AD, there was no Italian literature. There were Italian writers, but they wrote either in Latin or French. Latin was the language of the law, of science, administration, and French was the language of literature, poetry, romance, and the epic. The Italians used to write in French, and the literate people could read in French. For the illiterate, French minstrels would come and sing in the market places and the public would follow as best as they could.

The Provencal dialect, especially, was close enough to Italian for many of them to be able to follow without too much trouble. By the thirteenth century, a Franco-Italian literature had developed. Italians were all writing in French. Nobody wrote in Italian. That was not elegant, not developed, but some of them, because their knowledge in French was imperfect, would bring in some Italian words into their French writing.

Now in 1225, the first poem, if it could be called a poem, in the Italian language was written. This was written by Saint Francis of Assisi, and it’s called The Canticle of the Creatures or The Canticle of the Sun. It’s in poor verse, as it doesn’t rhyme and it doesn’t actually scan. It’s in a dialect, and it’s in a sort of rhythmical prose and without proper rhymes in most cases, but it’s one of the first pieces of Italian literature, and one of the greatest masterpieces still. He called himself God’s jongleur, and this means a juggler. The meaning was roughly what today we would call a busker. That’s to say a sort of entertainer. Nothing like the troubadours, but on a rather low-level, entertaining people with dances, with juggling, and sometimes with stories and doggerel rhymes. Francis called himself that. He was not an accomplished stylist of any kind, but this inspiration which came to him at the very end of his life produced Italian literature.

After this, the people began writing what were called lauds on the lines of The Canticle of the Sun. By the end of the century, it was not unthinkable to write in Italian. Then, Dante, as Italians proudly say, initiated the education of Europe in Italian. Another point of inspiration in The Canticle of the Sun of Saint Francis is that those who’ve done the research into the religious atmosphere and beliefs of northern Italy at the time, find it was mainly pessimistic and the world was regarded as evil and controlled by Satan. It was regarded as a losing battle against Satan. This was worldly design. In Saint Francis’s inspired Canticle the created things of the world are seen in an entirely different light as manifesting the glory of God. From this inspiration of a not highly cultured man, and an inspiration which, by the standards of the time, was not highly cultivated or skilful or technically accomplished, began this tremendous inspiration which culminated finally in the Renaissance. Well, this is an example, which our teacher encouraged us to find in history. He said very often that the inspiration doesn’t depend on tremendous accomplishments in a field, but that it can speak, like Kobo, even through the most imperfect instrument and still write a masterpiece.

This was the main thing to say about the doctrine of inspiration. Our teacher said to a small audience, “Every person in this room is capable of thinking the thoughts of Shakespeare, of writing like a Dante.” Whether it was greeted with scepticism or with hope or with incredulity is another question. He made this point often, and he said repeatedly, and Shri Dada was an example. Shri Dada was not accomplished in philosophy, but he could talk with ease on the most difficult metaphysical questions from his own experience and inspiration.


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