How to regulate our actions in ordinary life


Our teacher sometimes used to begin a talk by asking us to touch the point between the eyebrows with the finger nail and use the after-sensation to sit in silence and bring the mind to this point.

These are verses from the Gita about how to regulate our actions in ordinary life.

“He who neglects the scriptural injunctions and lives by his pleasure desires does not attain perfection, nor happiness, nor the highest goal.”  The word for scriptural is Shastra.  “Therefore let scripture be your guide. And you should not do what is not prescribed by scripture and you should do what is prescribed by scripture.  When such required action is done simply because it ought to be done, abandoning attachment and fruit – that abandonment is of sattva, is of light.  He does not hate a disagreeable action when righteousness demands it, nor does he cling to an agreeable one.  Such a man is sattvic, wise and his doubts are all dissolved. One should not give up what one ought to do, even though it may have some defects, because every action has some defects, as fire is dimmed by smoke.”

The Gita itself is a Shastra – Shankara calls it the Gita Shastra – the Gita Scripture.  So we can look for injunctions on action, what to do and what not to do – how to guide our actions, by looking at the Gita.  There are four places where a list of the qualities is given. Chapter 16, chapter 17, chapter 18 and then in chapter 13 a list of qualities is given which will bring on someone from the worldly state up to Knowledge.

[Trevor now refers to a diagram]  Now in this list, the left-hand column is chapter 16. These are the qualities, self-control and so on. These come in chapter 16, chapter 17, chapter 18 and also in the chapter 13 on Knowledge, to bring one to Knowledge.  So there are virtuous actions in the world, and these are also actions which will lead to Knowledge.  And they’re very surprising lists.  Some of them come in all four places – that’s these three, self-control, uprightness and purity.  They come in all the four places.

Then the next set, devotion-worship [etc.], comes in three places.  It comes in chapters 16, 17, not in 18, but it is also one of the Knowledge qualities, qualities that lead to Knowledge.  Devotion-worship, then steadiness in Yoga, gift, tapas (or austerity), serenity, firmness and non-violence. Those come in three places.

Then further down still, coming in only two places, fearlessness, purity of essence – this means the depths of the being are becoming purified – self-study, truth, giving up the fruits of action.  Now this is not one of the special qualities which lead to Knowledge, because the man who is practicing for Knowledge is already practicing solitude as much as he can.

A certain fire. There has to be tejas, there has to be some fire in people.  Not simply to be complacent, or to blindly follow like a slave.  There has to be some fire, patience, and then service.  Here again, the service is not slavishness.  Shri Dada, our teacher’s teacher, warns “Serve, but don’t be slavish.”  And absence of pride.

And then there are a whole list of qualities which are found in one place only, [but they’re on the other side, and you will see the ones marked in red] and they come in chapter 13 and they are qualities which lead to Knowledge.  And, in fact, some of them are the fringes of Knowledge.  Sincerity, non-egoity, to realise that everything in the world is painful, withdrawal, non-attachment, undisturbability, yoga meditation on God, solitude, steadiness in Self-Knowledge.  Already he has some Self-Knowledge, now he has to practice steadiness in it.  And then liberation as the goal of Knowledge – he has to focus on liberation as the goal of Knowledge.  Those are for one who is specially practicing for Knowledge.

Then the other two lists, to some extent they overlap.  They come in one place only – no anger, no slander, compassion – this is one of the very few, what we would call, positive actions, compassion.  No craving, gentleness, modesty, no fickleness, no injury to others – this is almost the same as non-violence, though Shankara makes a distinction as a commentator has to. Then Brahmacharya and true, useful and calming speech, charm, faith, silence.  They come in one place only, and then the last one is authority, skill, heroism and faith.  They are mostly for the pupils of the psychological warrior class.

Now the surprise is that nearly all of these relate to self-training.  There’s hardly anything about doing things for society and for other people.  And the Gita morality is criticised for this purpose – but the purpose is self-training, and it’s not about doing good to other people. This is a very important point in the Gita.  The fundamental basis of its morality is a sentence in the modern times in the Shri Dada Sanghita (the Heart of the Indian Mystical Teaching): “You cannot do good action, you will not be able to do good action, until you begin to rise above the body consciousness.”  We can say, “Well that remains to be seen, surely that’s not so.”  But one modern example – well from the last century – was given.  Before Pasteur the doctors didn’t understand the need to disinfect their hands.  They used to come to childbirth cases or treat wounds without washing their hands.  So although they treated the injuries of the patients, they were infecting them very often.

Now in the same way one can do good, but if it arises from a mind which is impure then to some extent those good actions will be a vehicle for the passions of the one who does them – their hate, their attachment, or their egoism.  Mother Theresa said that it’s very difficult to do good without getting a sense of domination.  And so the Gita training, gift, is one of the few – what we would call – positive, good actions.  The rest consist of making the person pure, self-controlled and upright.  The Shri Dada Sanghita speaks of this, of a purity, and it says that without inner purity, then many of our attempts to do good will fail.  And he says that many start off with benevolent intentions and are great philanthropists and do good to the human race, but they turn into tyrants and even murderers.

The early Chinese, Chuang-Tzu, he has a little one of these very acute Chinese fables on it.  The lady of the house sees the hens in the courtyard eating the ants.  She feels sorry for the ants, so she tells the servant, “Take the hens to the market and sell them”.  So he ties their legs together and takes them, flapping and squawking furiously, to the market – and the lady of the house feels good.  On the way he meets the master talking to a friend.  The master says, “Where are you going? What’s that?”  And the servant tells him.  The master looks at the hens squawking and feels sorry for them.  So he says, “Well take them back.  I’ll explain.”  So he takes them back.  Then he feels that he’s done good and the hens are again picking up the ants.  But now he comes back and he finds that his wife is sad.  And Chuang-Tzu says, “Ants, hens, human beings.  What was good and what was bad?  It’s like a mountain stream rushing through a cataract, twisting and turning.”  He observed, or guessed, that a stream of water gushing through an enclosed channel would develop a rotary motion, as Einstein proved two thousand years later.  They try to do good.

Then Dogan, much later, in China – a Zen master – he said, “The frog is sitting watching the dragonfly.  When the beautiful dragonfly gets a little bit closer, the frog’s sticky tongue would come out and get it.  But behind the frog, there’s a snake, making for the frog silently.  Now you see them.  We don’t like snakes much; frogs are a bit better.  If you drive off the snake and spare the frog, you’re interfering with nature.  The snake’s hungry just as the frog’s hungry.  If you don’t drive off the snake, you’re interfering with your own heart.  It tells you “Don’t like snakes, drive it away.”  So he says again, “It’s a tangle and it’s not easy, by thinking and by reasoning, to resolve it.”

We can say, “Surely, in modern times we can have scientific objectivity – a scientific view.  The scientist is trained to be objective and when he applies his objectivity to the world, well then these problems will be solved.”  But, as a matter of fact, it isn’t so.  As Einstein pointed out, most scientists are scientists by chance. They happened to have an uncle who was in science.  They could have been lawyers or accountants.  It’s the same type – there’s accuracy in ordering the facts, and there’s the ability to draw up the implications.

J B S Haldane, for instance, and many others in the 1920s and 30s were furious communists and they knew quite well what was going on in Russia under Stalin. They were not objective at all, but they hung on to it.  They were seeking for something to worship.  There was no objectivity; their objectivity – as Einstein said – was confined to the units with which they were familiar, of their work.  We can say, “Oh well, that’s gone now.”  But if we take today, about ten years ago, in the conclusion of the Reith lectures, Colin Blakemore, a brilliant young physiologist, was saying how reason and knowledge could solve all our problems.  He concluded his Reith lectures, “I began my talk about revolution – revolution and science.  I end on the same note, revolution – social as well as scientific.  It will grow.  When the choice for action is transparent, then we shall be able to choose.  In the words of Chairman Mao Tse-Tung, “We can learn what we did not know.  We are not only good at destroying the old world, we are also good at building the new.””

Well the Cultural Revolution destroyed many of China’s greatest art treasures and its language and a whole generation has lost its education; they think now about 50 million people probably lost their lives.  In a way he knew, but he was seeking something to worship.  There was no objectivity there and the Chinese who was one of those who was responsible for conducting the parties of Western observers, including scientists, throughout, they managed to get in touch with him some years after the Cultural Revolution.  He said, “Yes. We deceived you, but you wanted to be deceived, didn’t you?”  He saw more clearly into the minds of the many scientists who were communists, than they did themselves.

We can say, “Oh well, perhaps a professional philosopher – and a philosopher who doesn’t get involved in mysticism, or anything like that – surely by reason he can determine right action on the basis of factors we know and come to conclusions.”  Well it depends how long you live.  There is one great philosopher who spent a very long life much engaged with just such questions – a summary of his book has just been written, an analysis of his ethical philosophy.  At one time or another he has held virtually all of the main theoretical positions in contemporary ethical theory. He began as an intuitionist, then, long before the emotive theory became fashionable he adapted a non-cognitive theory of ethical judgements.  Finally in old age he has come out for ethical naturalism, a satisfaction theory, against which he had argued so strongly earlier.  So in spite of his great brilliance and his length of years, he did not in fact reach satisfaction.  The only view that he didn’t pass through was the religious one – he was far from objective in that respect.  He said, “Professional moralists have never considered and do not now consider that kindliness, generosity, freedom from envy and malice are as important morally as obedience to the rules of the traditional codes.

It would seem that he’d never heard of things like “Love thy neighbour as thyself” or “If your enemy is hungry, feed him, if he is thirsty, give him drink.”  It’s perfectly apparent that in the traditional codes there are many such injunctions.  And in his views, which changed, he was enormously influential, because he was a beautiful writer, very persuasive and convincing and his followers also became markedly confused.

We can say, “Well, it may be so, but there are certain things which are obviously good. For instance, in the Middle Ages, the church was open to the peasants. It was the only national institution which was open to them.  There was a vague obligation on the parish priest that if a boy was clever, intelligent and pious to give him an integration and some of them did. And at a conference of bishops they had recorded the origins of the bishops, and half of them were from peasant stock. Well now that must be good.  But it was argued against very strongly and convincingly, “No!”, because what happens is that this is the one chance of getting out of being a peasant serf.  So any boy who is energetic, ambitious and ruthless, he will become an ardent Christian and enter the church, because this is his one ladder by which he can get out of this appalling semi-slavery.

So they say, “Oh well, they would soon have been discovered; they might get up a few ranks, you know, but it would soon become apparent that they didn’t believe in Christianity at all and they were simply ambitious.”  Not so.  Cardinal Wolseley was of peasant stock and he ruled the country for fifteen years, with Henry VIII who was the nearest we had to an English Stalin.  Wolseley was of peasant stock – he nearly became pope, he was fantastically ambitious and it was bad luck that he didn’t achieve his ambition, but he could hardly be called a Christian.  Twenty thousand people were hanged in the reign of Henry VIII.  You could be hanged for anything, and from there the phrase originates, “May as well be hanged for a sheep as for a lamb”, and the statute De heretico comburendo: that the heretic shalt be burned alive, was on the English statute book.

You can say, “Well, we don’t want peasants; we don’t want the door open to peasants into the church. It’s better to have people like St Anselm, Saint Thomas Aquinas, who were small property owners and so they could have lived on their property.  They weren’t desperate.  You don’t want great landowners in the church because they’ll simply look after their interests, but you want people just from the middle who if they go into the church will go in with conviction.  Not the peasants.”  But one of the greatest Christians who ever lived – and our teacher was a great admirer of him – was Pope Sylvester the Second.  He was of peasant stock.

So as the Chinese say, the arguments for and against what is good and what is bad are endless, like the river turning and twisting.  And by one’s reason you can find the cases for and against.  Now the Shri Dada Sanghita says so many of them started off well and became murderers and tyrants.  Our teacher recommended studying history. He said seek for examples of these things in history.  Don’t just read them.

Italy in 1923 was absolutely plagued by lock-outs, strikes and the trains were invariably late and nothing worked, and the people were getting absolutely exasperated.  Mussolini, a former socialist, led his march on Rome and he was successful.  Now he got the trains punctual.  People had said, what our teacher used to call, insincere excuses trying to cover up that.  They said, “Oh well, the Italians – it’s the nature of the people, you see.”  Then others would say, “Would you rather be in a train where the driver has admittedly over-slept an hour, but has rested; or would you rather a man who has been got out of bed by the alarm, and his eyes are glaring, fixed on the clock.  Well, he’s not going to be a good driver.  And then if all the trains arrived on time then the station wouldn’t be able to cope with them, you see.  There’d be an absolute flood.”  You see – insincere arguments, as our teacher said.  Well, Mussolini changed that.

When they said Italians are easy-going, artistic, he said “No, no.  Italians invented science.  Galileo invented time with the pendulum clock.  Volta invented electricity, volts.  Galvani galvanised.  Now we’re going to have those trains on time, as your ancestors got things on time.”  And then, yes, they were on time and he succeeded in many good social things in Italy.  For instance I knew an Englishman whose Italian was good enough to pass as an Italian and he told me that under Mussolini the army recruits after two weeks of indoctrination were taken on a six week or two month tour of Italy.  Most of them had never been outside the village.  They knew nothing except the next village, who they hated.  But he said they were shown and they had good guides to guide them round the Colosseum and the wonders of what their ancestors had done and their art treasures.  And he said Mussolini’s policies converted them into Italians.  They were proud for the first time of their ancestry as Italians.

Our teacher said of the Upanishadic Shvetaketu, that he was a very naughty boy and the father said to him, “Now Shvetaketu it’s time you went and studied under a teacher, because in our family there’s never been a Brahmin by courtesy who didn’t know the holy texts.”  Our teacher said this is the right use of family pride.  Not hostile to others but to get the young ones to emulate their great ancestors.

Mussolini wrote plays, he was a good writer.  Our teacher read one of his plays, “The Hundred Days” He speaks of it.  The Duce, the leader – and all over Italy there were plastered on the hoardings, “El Duce is always right”.  This Englishmen I knew, he told me – and I haven’t seen it referred to elsewhere – that when the troops were marching in the country, not in front of foreigners, they marched du-ce, du-ce, du-ce.  Mussolini produced the Encyclopaedia Italiana which is regarded very highly by encyclopaedists.  He backed Tucci, probably the greatest oriental scholar of the Far East, who is still alive – he backed him when he was a young man and he did an enormous amount of good.

Mussolini made a famous boast which Shaw preserved in the play, Geneva.  He was tackled by a League of Nations man with some reporters, who said, “Yes, Italy has some made great progress, but it’s not a democracy is it?”   Mussolini said, “The Italian people like me and want me, and accept me as the Duce, the leader.” And he said, “But yes, it’s not a democracy is it?” And then Mussolini made this famous challenge, he said, “Hold elections”.  And a horrible sneer came over them.  Mussolini said, “No. I’ll give you the money and facilities.  Hold your own elections in Italy.  Hold your own, with an entirely free hand.  I shall be elected by 98% of the people.  If that’s not democracy, what is?”  And some experts were asked and said, “It’s true.  The Italians accept him as the man of destiny.  They say, “We don’t like some of the harshness but we need it.””

Well then after ten years he began living a life of luxury, and you get a deterioration of the intelligence.  He began dreaming of conquests in Africa and he was impressed by the rise of Hitler in the north.  Then quite soon the degeneration took place.  People didn’t know what was happening in Italy.  They knew something had gone wrong. Nobody liked to say anything.  If they said anything then force began to be very strongly used against them. And so the thing began to collapse, and then after that it became a ruthless dictatorship.  This is an example of what our teacher was saying – that they can begin extremely well, and do what they see to be good, and they do a certain amount of good.  But because there’s no purity of being, there’s no purity or, he says, a limited amount of purity and it becomes corrupt, then there begins to be a degeneration. And then they become bewildered, they don’t know what to do.

So what is good and what is bad? How are we to decide?  Even the scriptures can contradict each other.  There is a scriptural injunction to loyalty which Bhishma, the general, followed.  But supposing the king has become a villain.  There’s another scriptural injunction not to take part in adharma, unrighteousness.  Now should he fulfil his loyal part, his pledge of loyalty to the king or should he walk out?

It can only be solved, Shri Dada says, by inspiration, when there’s a rise above the limitations of the body consciousness.  He says, “Every man must be able to go into voluntary nervous and mental relaxation and in that silence concentrate on a symbol of God.  It is this prolonged silence of the soul which will bring before him the architypes of what he is to create both within and externally.”  So that finally these virtues given by the Gita are to produce inspiration, and that’s why so few of them contain definite instructions, “Do this, do that!”  They are to transform the whole inner essence and make it transparent to the divine will and then he will know – there won’t be endless arguments about what is right and what is wrong and looking to consequences and trying to balance them.

Looking back then, we can see that the ones which come in all the four places are those three. Self-control, and our teacher said that self-control is not simply a holding back, but it’s also a freeing.  Edward Blake, who was a general, had never been to sea and Cromwell said to him, “You are to be the admiral of the fleet.”  Now, if he’d been a slave he would have said, “I have been appointed the admiral of the fleet” and he would have gone down and simply acted on his likes and dislikes – and the result would have been disastrous, because he knew nothing.  But if he’d been a slave he would have simply done what he had been told. But he was a servant.  A servant is not a slave – a servant co-operates.  If the master has made a mistake, the servant brings it to his notice.  He doesn’t simply do what he is told. Blake became a brilliant admiral, he is one of the greatest lights in British naval history.  He developed new tactics.  Perhaps that was why he was so successful, because he’d never been to sea before.  He didn’t listen to them when they said “Oh. We’ve always done it this way.” No, he developed new tactics, and he wrote the books and they were followed for a century.  He was a servant, not a slave, and because he was a puritan and his mind was at least relatively pure, he received some inspiration through this.

Well then, the instructions of the Gita are to follow the Shastra, follow the scriptural injunctions.  But when we look at what those scriptural injunctions are, they are for self-purification.  To make the self upright and not make, what our teacher called, insincere arguments.  And then the third one is purity or transparency.  I’ll finish with the quotation from the Shri Dada Sanghita: “It is this prolonged silence of the soul which will bring before him the architypes of what he is to create in the internal and external world.”

Thank you for your attention.



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