Morality and The Bhagavad Gita
The greater part of the morality of the Gita consists in not doing harm
The situation of Arjuna is well known, he is a General who is to give the signal for a battle to begin, a battle that he has been looking forward to fighting, though it is unsought. The text and our own teacher make it clear that every effort at mediation has been made, but fails because the tyrannical ruler on the other side refuses to make even the slightest concession. Arjuna has been looking forward to the battle but, when he has to give the signal for it to begin, he surveys the revered teachers and relations on both sides who will be killed almost surely, and suddenly finds he can’t give the signal, he doesn’t want to do it. He then speaks to his charioteer, the Avatar Krishna, and he says: ‘I have suddenly realised that this is wrong – that fighting and killing people is wrong – and I don’t want to take any part in this. Better for me to be killed unresisting on the battlefield than to take part in such a sin. It is true that there are people on the other side who don’t recognise it as a sin, but although they do not, I do. So I should not take part in the battle.’
And Krishna hears these words and he gives a little smile. The little smile means: ‘You use the words of the wise, but you are not wise. They are not an expression of wisdom in you, you are simply quoting these words in order to get out of doing something which you suddenly find you don’t want to do. The wise are not overcome with grief and sorrow and delusion as you are now. You are using these apparently wise and spiritual words in order to get out of your responsibility.’
This is an example; Arjuna is suddenly making up a new philosophy of his own, quite inappropriate to his circumstances. Another example was given by a great modern teacher, a disciple of Dr. Shastri, who wrote: ‘Now to the second possible query. It is sure to have something to do with ‘not working for results’. This idea, one might almost call it ‘this inhibition’ arises from a misconception of the words of Shri Krishna to his pupil in the Bhagavad Gita. He says: ‘Thy right is to the work, never to its fruit, therefore let not the fruit of thine action be thy motive, nor take refuge in inaction. The Lord does not say that a man should never work for results, but only that he should not consider that he has a right to them.’
Distortions of the Gita are often used to try to cover up, or justify, a failure in effort in some spiritual endeavour. We can see how insincere this is, because if we go to the dentist and he stops a tooth, but that afternoon the stopping falls out, and we go back to the dentist and show it to him and he says: ‘Well, I am not working for results,’ we know what our response will be. Similarly there are verses of the Gita which say: ‘Take refuge in the Lord. Take sole refuge in the Lord’.
This is often used to suppose that the Gita does not recommend effort, but, as a matter of fact, if we look up the Sanskrit root: ‘yat’, which means to strive, in the Gita we find it again and again. It says: ‘Strive, strive. Among thousands of men one perchance strives for perfection, and for those striving, one perchance attains it.’ Those who strive, endowed with yoga, see the self, in the self.’ (Ch.XV,2) If you go through the Gita looking up that root, when you get to sixty or seventy you become sated with references, because you realise that the whole of the Gita is permeated with the concept of striving, but that striving is not sufficient in itself any more than the striving of an agricultural labourer. The labourer’s work is not sufficient in itself, it is absolutely necessary, but it is not sufficient; he needs the rain and the sunshine.
It should be said at the beginning of this talk that the Gita yoga is a yoga of experiment. Its experiments begin, for instance, in Chapter II which says: ‘even a little of this yoga will free one from great fear’ (Ch.II,40). There is no loss, no effort made is lost, says S’ankara – even a little of this yoga frees one from great fear. In S’ankara’s other commentaries, for instance, an opponent will say, about the holy text, that the yoga discipline does not, in fact, set men free from the bondage of Sansara – the bondage of suffering and fear of the world. S’ankara, in reply to this, does not refer directly to his own experience, but says in this case: ‘they do have their effect, they do free, for we see men who are free from fear, from grief and pain’. He is referring to an experimental result – that it is possible to see some who have attained it – this means that it is reasonable to suppose that we ourselves can attain it also.
The main subject of this talk is the practical morality of the Gita. We said in the beginning that it rests on revelation – all over the world the religious faith has rested on revelation, in that there has to be faith but that faith is not blind faith.
Blind faith can be illustrated by Tertullian, one of the great church fathers, who died around 220 AD, just before the first real organised persecution of the Christians under Emperor Decius. Tertullian, a brilliant writer, comes out with these striking phrases; one of them is ‘I believe because it is incredible. It is certain because it is impossible.’ This is a man who clearly still has doubts – ‘it is incredible – it is impossible’, but he shouts them down – I believe in spite of all this – I believe because it is incredible – I believe because it is impossible.
This is quite the opposite to the yoga view, where doubts have to be brought out and met, and they can be met; the revelation on conduct is supplemented by reason and by subsequent revelations. The old Upanishad revelation is supplemented by the later revelation of the Gita, for instance on how we should speak. It says: what we say should be true, pleasantly uttered and also useful and not provocative.
To simply tell the truth is only one part of proper speech, according to the Gita. If interpreted literally it can be inept, as in the case of some extreme Christian sects. I remember hearing of some friends who wanted to show one such fanatic some photographs of their holiday trip but he said: ‘No don’t show me them because if I don’t like them I will have to say so – I will have to tell the truth and that might upset you.’ In the Gita it is not enough for speech to be true, it should also be useful, pleasantly uttered and should not cause excitement.
There is a basis for the Gita revelations and that is within a man there is a god, the same god in all men. ‘He sees who sees the same lord standing equally in all the beings – the undying in the dying.'(XIII,27) The process is gradually to set free – to clarify the obscured God-head, which at the moment is concealed. God conceals himself by his own maya. He has himself entered into the beings as the God of their heart and he has concealed himself, to some extent, by his own maya – the process of yoga is freeing completely from the divine illusion of maya.
It has been said, by western critics, that the morality of the Gita, like the morality of most Indian schools, is rather negative, and it is thought that somehow western morality is much more positive. They will quote the Sermon on the Mount: ‘Do to others as you would they do to you, this is the law and the prophets.’ Whereas the Indian morality is much closer to that of the great rabbi Hillel, contemporary of Jesus, whose view was: ‘Do not do to others what you would not want them to do to you, that is the law and the prophets.’
We can say that the greater part of the morality of the Gita consists in not doing harm. The morality which consists in doing to others as you would like them to do to you can be unsatisfactory because tastes differ. A noisy person, who might be called sociable, likes to be invited out to a drink and have people drop in on him just for a chat and a merry time, and so, naturally, he will do that to others. But that will not suit a retired scholar who wants to research or an artist who needs to spend a good deal of time in creative work. Whereas the maxim: ‘Do not do to others what you would not want them to do to you,’ leads to less discord.
We can see in the Gita that sometimes there are great blocks of characteristics which have to be acquired by effort. For instance, Chapter II Verse 55 is about the one who is stabilising his knowledge and who is practising Samadhi meditation. This is the profoundest meditation, where there is nothing but the object of meditation in consciousness, and S’ankara explains these verses: ‘He who is independent of praise and blame, of the desirable and the undesirable of whatever happens, and who thinks of the Self alone, and turns his mind to the Self alone – he is one in whom wisdom is becoming established.’ It is a course S’ankara explains in his introduction to the chain of verses; first, the arousal of Jnana (Knowledge), and then its stabilisation. This is someone who has Jnana, and this has to be matured and established in most cases.
Again, in chapter XII verse 13: ‘He who hates no single being, who is friendly and compassionate to all, he is my beloved … my beloved devotee.’ There is a whole chain of verses from verse 13 to the end of the chapter, but S’ankara, in his introduction, says these verses apply to the Samnyasin who has renounced everything and they are the establishment (Nishtha) of Samyagdarshana, or right vision. That is to say he has knowledge and it has to be established. He says this at the beginning of the verses and he will say this when he sums up at the beginning of the next chapter, Chapter XIII.
Looking back over the verses that conclude the last chapter, he calls them Jnana-nishta. ‘Friendly and compassionate to all’, he explains as ‘doing no harm to them’, and this is, in fact, a renunciate who does not have undertakings in the world – for example, founding hospitals.
Nevertheless he is friendly and compassionate to all, and that friendliness and compassion is expressed mainly in teaching. An example is when we have what we regard as a great loss, a great tragedy, and we are bemoaning our own fate. If we see somebody walking down the street who is a Samnyasin, without any possessions, who has given up everything and yet walks so freely, it can make great changes to our attitude. Again, in chapter XIII, verses 7 to 11, there are things which, if practised, lead to knowledge, yet there is nothing here about doing anything for other people.
Humility, modesty, uprightness, non-injury, non-attachment to family or home, resort to solitary places, and one-pointed meditation on God. Finally the establishment of constancy in knowledge is said to be one of the characteristics that leads to the real full knowledge, the mature knowledge.
The one view in the West is that it does not matter who or what you are provided you do good actions. If someone is starving they want food – they don’t care if it comes from the hand of a villain or the hand of a saint, they simply need the food. But the view in the Gita, and in Far Eastern thought generally, is that the most important thing is the character of the giver; he doesn’t just give material help, he gives spiritual help and consolation.
There are three gifts and the lowest is the material gift, which is soon used up, and there will be the same request tomorrow. The second is the gift of courage, and the third is the gift of wisdom. These can be given only from a giver who has acquired them himself and thus changed his nature. The villain and the selfish person cannot give them.
Some of the Chinese masters give very vivid illustrations of problems of morality – not intellectual analysis, but illustrations from life, and one of them is given by Tozan, who was a great Buddhist of the early times of Zen: ‘You see a frog sitting on a leaf, a lotus leaf, and periodically he shoots out his long sticky tongue, and the dragonflies and other beautiful insects that are playing in the sunshine get caught on the sticky tongue and are eaten alive. Now behind him is coming up a hungry snake – you see this, and you don’t like snakes. Now do you drive off the snake and spare the frog which otherwise the snake will eat? If you do you are interfering with the great course of nature, but if you do not interfere where is your compassion?
This illustration can be developed. You may interfere and knock away the snake with your stick. (With a stick, it is quite easy to neutralise a snake and drive it away because it can’t strike until it is coiled, and you simply keep on breaking up the coils.) If you thus interfere, it is bad for the snake, who doesn’t get his meal; it is good for the frog who doesn’t get eaten, but it is bad for the flies who do get eaten. On the other hand if you don’t interfere it is good for the snake, who gets his meal; it is bad for the frog who gets eaten, but it is good for the flies who don’t get eaten – that is two to one for not interfering. Tozan uses this to say it is impossible to work out what is good and what is bad in these sort of actions.
Much earlier, Mencius, who was the great successor to Confucius, reported: ‘The King was in his palace when, outside in the street, a bull was being led to a ritual State sacrifice, and the bull seemed to know that it was being led to slaughter, and gave a melancholy bellow. The King went to the window and saw the bull, and a great wave of compassion came over him. He said: ‘Take the bull back to the meadow and sacrifice a ram instead,’ and Mencius commented dryly: ‘This is quite natural; the King saw and heard the bull, he didn’t hear and see the ram, but if he thinks he has done any actual good he is mistaken.’
Tozan concludes: ‘Doing good or not doing good is a tangle.’ Famine relief workers sometimes say they can save children who would otherwise die at birth in a famine stricken area but they know that those children will die of starvation in three or four years time. Is it best to save them now or to leave them?
The yogic view is that by far the greatest proportion of human suffering is created by human beings behaving cruelly to each other. Take the case of the Black Death plague in the Middle Ages, which was one of the greatest natural disasters ever experienced by humanity; it killed 20 million people – about a third of the population of Europe. But in this century the first Great War killed 8 million people; the second in battle killed 18 million people, and in addition, 30 million people died outside the actual battles. So the vast majority of sufferings are caused by human beings, and the yogic view is, that rather than going round after them trying to patch up the damage that has been done, the true and proper course is to try to change, through the methods given in the Gita and other great scriptures and great spiritual traditions, the hearts of the people who are causing the damage.
Some fatalists talk of karma as if it were an unalterable destiny. That is not the case, and it represents a misunderstanding of the idea. Our teacher used to cite the case of a malaria-stricken area next to a swamp. The Indian villagers caught malaria all the time, and apathetically accepted it as their karma. Then the British came and drained the swamp so that the malaria-carrying mosquitoes could no longer breed and thus died out, and with them went the malaria. Our teacher said: ‘Where was karma then?’ Karma brings adverse circumstances, but they can be modified by creating new karma. The whole drive – the main drive of the morality – is in changing consciousness – and not just of a few people; the Bodhisattva spirit of compassion spreads by a sort of contagion. It appeals to the God who is hidden in all beings, and the God will begin to stir, and behaviour will change.
The principle is to go to the source. By that swamp in India the malaria-stricken villagers cared for each other and nursed the sick, but that was not a real solution. Karma brings the difficult circumstances but we can make new karma by changing them. We should go the source of the difficulties. Rather than palliating the effects of human cruelty, which is responsible for most of human suffering, we should try to change the source. At the beginning of the Gita, in the introduction, S’ankara says: ‘The Lord taught this classic to Arjuna, not merely for the sake of Arjuna, but knowing it would finally spread. What the great man does, many other people will imitate. As Arjuna practises, it will spread to others and it will relieve the situation on earth’.
There has to be a word about the superimposition of the world illusion. In S’ankara’s philosophy the world is an illusion. As the Gita repeatedly says: ‘The Lord has projected by his maya, his trick-of-magic, an illusion, and it is to provide a stage, so to speak, on which men can act and work out their past karma, the karma they have accumulated from actions in previous lives’. We are to realise that the illusion is not like the free-association of dreams, but it has a basis, and the classical examples given are a mirage in a desert, or a snake seen projected on to a rope.
We notice that the snake is very similar to the rope, for it has, for instance, the same number of coils, and an imaginary snake has the same number of coils as a real rope. In the same way, the cosmic illusion has a basis. There is the cosmic purpose, which is the production and maintenance of the stage for humans to work out the results of their karma. This will finally lead them to liberation. Some help is given in this process, but it is given in a concealed way, so, to an ordinary human it looks like the events of this world are controlled by blind forces of nature and their own actions, to a greater or lesser extent.
‘Just as the water in a mirage, the snake on a rope, and dirt in the sky are eliminated through the perception of the real nature of the mirage, rope and sky, similarly, by dissolving in Purusha – the Self – through the knowledge of the true nature of one’s own Self, all that is projected by unreal ignorance, i.e. that which is characterised by action, instrument, and result, and that is but constituted by the three – name, form, and action – one becomes established in the Self and peaceful in mind, and he has his goal achieved.’
We can see from this reading that this world is the world of superimposition. It has been pointed out that even great scholars, when they consider this point, if they are not practising yogis, then they do what we all do – make a little pile of the things that we ‘know’ are real, namely ourselves as individuals and acting agents and the world consisting of separate things controlled by these blind forces of nature, and we sit on this pile. This pile cannot be disturbed, and thus seated we start to examine questions of illusion and reality. Even a great scholar may say: ‘The scriptures give us illusions, for instance, about the Gods and omniscience of God and the idea of a creator.
God gives us these illusions in order to create a one- pointedness and purity of mind and then, when the mind becomes relativity clear and still, then those illusions are simply swept away and given up. What remains is pure consciousness and an awareness of that is something like liberation.’ Well this is not the case. It isn’t the case that the holy text provides things like fairy stories in order to create devotion. Once we are told that, if we believe it, devotion is killed stone dead; we are not going to give devotion with any sincerity for something which we believe to be unreal and simply produced as an artefact.
The fact is that we are living in a fairy tale, we are living in a superimposition. We think that the world is controlled by cause and effect; in fact we know quite well that there are many gaps in the cause and effect relation. We assume that cause and effect relations will still hold in those gaps which are unknown to us and which are everywhere, but we don’t know, and the yoga doctrine is that the course of the world does not consist of cause and effect – it consists of means and ends. The events of the world are not the result of blind forces of nature, but are conscious projections by the cosmic mind designed to look as if they were mere mechanical repetitions.
When we come to analyse them in the very small we will see that consciousness is at their basis. In the same way, when we examine the causality of a play very carefully, we see that in very small things, the cause and effect relation, which seems so convincing, does not hold up – the knife does not actually go into Caesar – the knife blade goes into the handle. Caesar does not fall as a man really falls when he has been stabbed, but makes a dramatic full-length fall. It is in these very small points that inconsistencies are shown: the dead body of Caesar breathes to the very end of the act. It is these small irregularities that highlight, to the very acute eye, the difference between mechanical cause and effect, and conscious, living means and ends. The fact is we are living in a mirage, we are living in a fairy story, but it has a purpose.
Our teacher used to give an example: the young, poor, discredited Columbus, who was on a journey, stopped for the night at a religious centre where the priest happened to be a confessor to Queen Isabella of Spain. Columbus and the priest started talking and Columbus explained his theories, which were based on the apocryphal book of Ezra, about the world being a globe. The book of Ezra shows something of distances, and Columbus believed that one could sail and reach India by going to the West. He succeeded in interesting the priest who then, in passing, mentioned it to Queen Isabella, who mentioned it to the King, and thus Columbus was equipped with an expedition. These four events are extremely unlikely to coincide, though it could happen, but our teacher gave them as an example of the cosmic purpose. It is similar to chance causality, yet looking at it carefully we can see a directing purpose.
When I was a boy, I attended a small prep school, where there were around 120 pupils aged from about 6 to 13. We were divided into fours sections of colour: red, blue, green and yellow, and if a boy performed some meritorious deed – this could be academic, sporting, or in general good behaviour, he could get what was known as a plus. Eight pluses would amount to a gold, and these were recorded by the master who awarded them. They went, not to the boy personally, but to his section. Similarly, if he performed badly he would get a minus, and eight minuses were a black mark. Well, at the end of the term, at prize giving, the sections’ totals were announced, and the winning section, the section with the most golds and pluses, and correspondingly fewest minuses and blacks, all stood up when their section was announced, and the boy who was head of that section walked up in front of the parents and others and received a tiny silver spoon.
Then the section which had done worst had to stand up, and their head boy had to come up and receive a large wooden spoon, which was quite an embarrassment. Often it was a fairly close thing, and towards the end of the term, there would be section meetings where pep talks would be given by the head of the section – ‘we have a good chance to win and we don’t want to be the losers,’ and so on.
One year the yellows had an absolute disaster. There was a practical joke, which went wrong, and the culprits were quite a big group of boys, most of them belonging to the yellow section. They were all awarded two or three black marks which put the yellows right down at the bottom, out of contention, and the head of the section, who happened to be my older brother, called a section meeting. Most of the boys expected him to say: ‘We have to make heroic efforts to get out of this,’ but he said: ‘Look, we are so far down below the others, we have absolutely no chance whatsoever. You can do as you like – I don’t mind walking up and getting that wooden spoon – you just stand up for half a minute and then sit down – it’s nothing.’
This was revolutionary thinking, and obviously welcome, but soon after that the yellows had a phenomenal piece of luck. There was one form in which, as it happened, there were a lot of yellows. One day the form master was away for some reason, and another master was called in to give the monthly exam. He evidently did not understand the nature of the exam for he apparently had got the impression that the exam was to be on the work that had been done in the previous two or three days, with which most of the form was fairly familiar. He marked very generously, and as a result the yellows in that class scored heavily in pluses, and even golds, and that put them into contention again for the final. Now I remember this, they didn’t win but they didn’t come bottom either.
It happened that when I left that school three or four years later and was a student at University (in those days you could get into University if you could pass the exam very young), to make a bit of extra money I did some tutoring at my old school. I met the headmaster again, who was, by now, some years older, and we used to talk occasionally. He once referred to this event, and he said something which gave me great surprise: ‘Yes, your brother struck a blow at the very foundations of our system of competing sections. His section was so far down, and when we heard about that meeting in which he told the members to do as they liked because there was no way of winning now anyway, we decided to take some very unusual measures to bring your brother’s section back into contention.’
For the first time I realised that the absence of the form master and the extraordinary generosity of the visiting master had all been planned. This was my first introduction to the subtleties of the ways of politics in the world, but it is an example, to us, of cause and effect. All the actions seemed quite natural to us; the form master was taken away on business and the new master came in. Naturally enough perhaps, he didn’t quite understand what he was supposed to do, and he was a nice man and marked us generously. It could all be explained as simple cause and effect but really there was a secret plan by the headmaster to bring the section up.
Similarly, there is a cosmic plan which is aimed at bringing men to live, first of all, dynamic lives in search of success in the world, and the legitimate pleasures of the world, obtained in the right way. But, finally, its purpose is to lead them in freeing the God within them and thus become liberated. The world looks, simply enough, like a chain of cause and effect on which human action can have some influence, but chance has the most influence. In S’ankara’s view every action and every event is part of a cosmic action. There are regularities, but they are not mechanical; they are determined by the cosmic ruler, who enters into every atom and controls it from within.
The Gita, in the verses around Chapter III,26, says: ‘The wise man should not upset the minds of men who are still attached to cause and effect and feel themselves to be acting and agents, but he should encourage them to act in a dharmic or righteous way. He himself, although he has no personal motives whatever, should perform these actions as they do, with the same enthusiasm that they have. In his case, he is inwardly detached and he is not bound, he does not make any claim on the results, any personal claim to the results, but he is aware of the cosmic purpose and he performs the actions efficiently, but in that sense.’
It is said, for instance, of the incarnation Rama, that he played his part as heir and then went on to fulfil his father’s promise. Rama gave up his claim as heir to the throne and went into the forest to live as an ascetic. Later on he returned and resumed the throne, but the expression on his face never changed when it was announced that he was going to be crowned King – he showed no exultation. When he went in to the forest, and gave up everything, he showed no dejection, no despair, no bitterness, and when again he returned, he showed no exultation, no triumph. He was fulfilling the actions, and he was the ideal King and the ideal ascetic, but he did not have any personal feelings – he simply performed his role in the most perfect way.
There is a list of qualities which can be cultivated by everyone and which will lead man to prosperity in this life, and will gradually free him from the bonds of this life for liberation. First comes the purification of essence and internal concentration, and in practising these there has to be goodwill. The general heading is compassion, but it is to creatures in distress who happen to be met, the point is not to go out and look for beings in trouble.
There are other, semi-divine characteristics to be cultivated, such as fearlessness, steadiness in yoga and knowledge, patience, and modesty (Gita Chapter XVI). There is also a description of bad men, evil men, who are ambitious to achieve power and success at any cost, and who have this enormous overweening pride and arrogance. They do not admit there is any higher power in the world before which they need to bow, but think that they themselves are the only judge of their actions, and therefore they do as they wish. There is a revealing sentence that says: ‘They hate the Lord in their own bodies and in the bodies of others – they hate the Lord,’ and it means that evil men can never be at rest or at peace with themselves because their conduct goes against what is deepest in them – the God that is deepest in them – so they try to blot out the awareness of the demands that God will make on them.
They hate the Lord in their own bodies and they hate the Lord in the bodies of others, so they will always try to degrade others both physically but also, especially, through speech. Jung remarks that the human mind in general finds relief in dragging down something which it feels to be great, and this is echoed in those campaigns, which we see quite frequently now, which seek to de-bunk heroes of the past. This is quite a painful process; they hate the manifestations, the divinity, they see in other people. When standards are mentioned now, they say: ‘Oh, does that mean we have to go back to Lord Reith at the BBC?’
But Reith created something really valuable; he was a quirky and craggy individual, but he established an ideal of telling the truth which has been upheld in the BBC World Service for well over sixty years. In that time, five times the Government has said to the BBC ‘We do not want that broadcast, we want this broadcast,’ and the BBC has said ‘No, you may close us down, but you have promised us independence with the programming.’
The great occasion was Suez when the country was divided over the Suez invasion, and the BBC was broadcasting the fact that the country was not wholly united behind the Suez venture. The Government protested: ‘We cannot send men into battle while the BBC broadcasts that the country is not behind them. You must stop it.’ The BBC replied: ‘No. You may close us down, but we will not change the programme.’ The Government searched for dummies to run a service as the Government wished it, but finally the Government gave way and set up their own little station in Cyprus to broadcast to the troops.
Well, the great ideal implemented by Reith remains with us today and is the envy of the world, but that is not mentioned, only some of Reith’s fundamentalist puritan attitudes are mentioned, with a giggle. This is hating the Lord in others – it is also going against the Lord in their own selves, and the slanderers have miserable lives and often end in black despair.
There are two riddling verses in Chapter VI of the Gita: ‘Let a man raise himself by himself, let him not degrade himself.”He himself is the friend of himself, he himself is the enemy of himself.’ The one who has controlled himself is a friend; in the one who is not self possessed the self stands as an enemy like an external foe. From this we can begin to get an idea of the morality of the Gita, it is not something imposed from outside.
The English translation of the word ‘duty’ is quite often used as a translation of dharma, which includes, for instance, the rules set down in the ancient law books; the traditions and so on. But the true basis of morality is inner inspiration, the inner expression of the cosmic purpose from the Supreme through the purified mind and body.
If we go to Chapter XVIII, verse 42, we shall see that men are divided into four types. These are translated as castes, but actually they are types, and are referred to as Brahmins, warriors, businessmen and shudras, or men of service. When this system of division hardened it became regarded as hereditary. A Brahmin was one who was born of Brahmin parents, and that was all.
What the Gita actually says is that the people of these types are there through the effects of their past karma – their birth as determined by their karmic actions in past lives. For instance, as Doctor Shastri often says, the Brahmin is one who seeks after Brahman – God – the absolute reality, not the one who happens to be born of Brahmin parents. In the Ancient Laws of Manu he says, ironically: ‘The Brahmin who lacks learning and piety is as an elephant made of leather – there is nothing there but the name.’ The true Brahmin was an inquirer, a searching character, who was engaged in inner purification and other virtues of self-control. The Buddha called some of his best disciples Brahmins although he was so against the formal hereditary division of the classes.
Of the Brahmin type, there are what the Gita calls natural karma-born actions; that is to say, the actions springing from his endowment at birth. This is, of course, not absolute fate but it is the endowment with which he comes into the world. He has a tendency to serenity, self-restraint, austerity, purity, forgiveness and also uprightness, knowledge and wisdom. Here, the word ‘knowledge’ means only knowledge of the texts, whereas wisdom is the actual realisation of that in experience; these tendencies are his natural endowment. e may not do it but he will never be happy or fulfilled with peace unless he does, and the Brahmin is one who will be naturally drawn to such things – he will be naturally attracted to calm rather than excitement.
The next class is the warrior type. This is the active type who is drawn to the organisation and the protection of society. The qualities to which he is naturally drawn are: bravery, boldness, fortitude, promptness and action. He can respond immediately without hesitation, without flying from conflict. He does not say: ‘Oh, anything for a quiet life,’ when duty demands he protect the weak.
Then there is what we would now call the business type. He is drawn to commerce, and trained especially in business which, in those days, involved ploughing and cattle rearing, though he is drawn to trade in general.
Lastly, service. This has degenerated into the idea of menial servitude, but there are people whose ideals involve serving some great purpose. They feel the need to attach themselves to a group or person and they want to serve; they find their fulfilment in feeling they are contributing to some higher end as their purpose in life. This use of the term ‘service’ is recognized in English in phrases such as: ‘the civil service’, ‘social service’ etc.
Now these are said to be the karma-born actions, the natural actions of that particular type. It does not mean they can’t do contrary actions, but they would not be at ease with those other actions. Describing these nature-born actions, the Gita says that a man attains perfection by delighting in his own special class- actions as worship to God (18.45). Worshiping God with his own class-action, man obtains perfection. That it is to say, he makes the instruments of body and mind perfect for receiving knowledge, and nourishing and sustaining it for ultimate liberation. Sometimes these verses are translated as ‘devoting himself to his own duty’, but that is not what the Gita says.
The word is ‘rati’, and it means delighting, in his own proper actions. That is, not duty imposed from outside, but actions which spring from his own nature. He may have to perform other duties, duties imposed from outside, but they will not give him the same delight. But when he performs the actions proper to him, he feels delight, and he needs to perform them as worship to God. Then he will become a perfect instrument and knowledge will spring up from the God within him. He has been worshipping the Lord outside, but now the knowledge will spring up from the Lord within him.
Now what is the actual programme of actions cultivating the Gita morality? Hints are given in many places, but there are specific instructions. For instance, in Chapters VII, IX, and X, the Lord makes some declarations, which he says are instructions for meditation up to samadhi. They are of the nature of something within the conduct of the aspirant and within the mental consciousness of the aspirant himself. Suppose, for instance, the aspirant is devoting himself to performing some tapas – austerity. Rather than thinking, ‘I am now making an effort at this austerity’, he should meditate, sitting still, on the declaration of the Lord in chapter VII, verse 9: ‘I am the tapas. I am the austerity in the men of tapas, those who practise austerity.
When he performs the austerity he should feel and meditate while performing it, even outside the period of meditation: it is the Lord manifesting austerity in himself, not that this is a personal attempt and, perhaps, achievement, but the Lord is manifesting it.
In the same way the Lord says: ‘I am tejas, splendour of the successful.’ When the aspirant is about to have a success or is having a success, then he is to meditate in his special sitting that this success is the Lord manifesting through him, not that he himself is attaining success. The Lord is manifesting that splendour through him. When he is at the peak of success, or about to attain it, he should bring up this feeling in himself more and more strongly. This is the Lord. If things change, then he knows the Lord has changed, and he does not feel that he himself has fallen away from what he was entitled to. Again, strength. He is not to pray for strength, but to meditate: ‘I am the strength, free from desire and passion.’ He meditates on strength in himself – he meditates that the Lord is manifesting strength in him – not that he himself is creating strength.
There are a number of other references to this. When he meditates on compassion he feels that this is the Lord. It is not that he himself is sentimentally compassionate, but the compassion is that of the Lord, and he knows that if he is to do something, then he will be free from the anxiety as to whether what he is doing has, or has not, done any real good or, indeed, whether it ever will. The benevolent compassion of the Gita is not limited to particular situations. Chapter IX, verse 17 says: ‘I am the father of this world – the mother, the dispenser and grand sire. I am the knowable, the purifier. I am the holy syllable – Om.’ By consciously meditating on these verses, these feelings will begin to flow through the meditator, and he will become a perhaps largely unconscious channel to the cosmic purpose.
The main thrust of the Gita morality is that it is on universal and not personal lines. In chapter XVII, three great pillars of the morality are summed up: Gift, then tapas, which means austerity, and finally yajna – sacrifice or worship. The Gift is not something given on impulse; our teacher can be rather ironical about, for example, some of the Buddha birth stories. Buddha-to-be was walking along a high place and he saw at the bottom of the cliff a starving tigress with her cubs, so he threw himself down to feed her. Our teacher said that the whole episode was based on cheap sentiment; the purpose of life is realisation – God, not feeding tigers.
The gift of the Gita is made to a proper person at a proper time and in a proper place, without any expectations of return, and in calmness as to the results of the action. We often see people who make a generous gift, but they generally expect some return for it, and complain if their gift is not appreciated or publicly recognized. As our teacher said: these people make so much money, and they give a little bit back to charity in order to put a gloss on their achievements. It is not wrong to do so, but they have their reward. As Jesus said: ‘They have their reward’, and that reward is here now, momentarily, and it doesn’t lead to spiritual advancement.
Then there is tapas. This is something lacking from our present, Western civilisation, which is characterised by our desire to live in comfort and ideal circumstance. But tapas, or austerity, is practised to make us independent of small irregularities in the environment. Practising tapas increases the vigour and intensity of what we do.
The third element is yajna: worship, and again this is something which is not particularly favoured now, although there is a suppressed hankering. One of Freud’s best pupils, Stekel, wrote long ago: ‘I am finding in my patients now not repressed sexuality, but repressed religion.’ There is this aspiration, but it is repressed, and they try to dismiss it with giggles and euphemisms, much as the sexual drive used to be concealed or dismissed or distorted. The yajna worship is essential for our spiritual growth and the meditations of the Gita are given for this purpose.
So the morality of the Gita is mainly not to harm people, and the positive side is to practise the ideals of calm self-restraint, general benevolence, and especially to give the gift of wisdom. There are three gifts: the material gift, which is part of the Gita morality that must not be given in a personal way, the gift of courage, and the gift of wisdom. The gift of wisdom is not simply through teaching, but ourselves practising and exemplifying the Gita virtues, or some of them, and the Gita calm and constructive attitude to life by practising these things and spreading the Gita teachings. The Gita itself says: ‘His services are greatest who teaches this truth humbly, without egoism.’
S’ankara says, in his introduction, that Krishna taught it in the expectation that, when Arjuna had taken it up, others would follow, and thus it would spread. We know, as is also said in the Gita, that there are times when the yoga tradition weakens owing to the lack of self-control. It then has to be revived – and it is revived. This is now a time, our teacher said, for revival, which he began by bringing it here, to Britain.
This world has a benevolent father who is bringing us to liberation, he is bringing the self within us to clear consciousness: ‘I am the father of this world, the mother, the dispenser and the grand sire. I am the knowable – everything that can be known is the Lord. I am the purifier – I am the holy syllable…. Om.’
© 1999 Trevor Leggett