Realization of the Supreme Self
This highly significant book on the Bhagavad Gītā. presents the Gītā as a training manual for spiritual practice. Divided up into five parts the book first looks at the background and traditions, part two discusses the Yoga-s of the Gītā in each of the Gītā chapters. Part three focuses on Śaṅkara’s presentation of the Gītā paths and part four is devoted to pointers for practice of the Gītā Yoga-s. The final part five is made up of Technical Appendices which give more detail drawn from Śaṅkara’s commentary on the Gītā.
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Chapter VII The Lord
Chapters V and VI have been mainly on samādhi-meditation. For karma-yogins, it was described as performed by individual effort: for Knowledge-yogins, it is a natural continuation of their realization. The four chapters that follow, VII to X, are mainly for karma-yogins who cannot find the resources in themselves to control their passion or inertia. They are to regulate the feelings by concentrating them on the Lord, whose perfection will naturally attract and refine them.
At the beginning of Chapter VII, the Lord states that the revelations now given are to be understood theoretically, and then experienced practically in yoga meditation. What is first a matter of faith must become direct experience.
An example is this. The Lord describes his projection of the world, and says that he is its dissolution too. He continues:
VII.7 There is nothing higher than I;
On Me all this is strung, like chains of pearls on a string.
The simile is one of faith, but not of blind faith. One of the points is, that the string is invisible, being hidden by the pearls strung on it. But a second point is that the string is known to be there; otherwise the pearls would not remain in order but would be scattered. In the same way the order in the world shows that there is an underlying intelligence which holds it together, which integrates it. Perhaps some scientists are beginning to recognize this. And if the pearl chain is minutely examined, there are tiny glimpses of the string. There are such glimpses of the cosmic string in meditation, and perhaps in some delicate experiments in physics which have puzzling results.
The Lord goes on to describe himself as the essential quality in things – the taste in water, light in moon and sun.
VII.9 Both the fragrance in earth and the brilliance in fire am I;
Life in all beings, and austerity in ascetics am I.
Śaṅkara interprets this chain of verses in another, deeper sense, as describing what the yogin sees when his meditation has been successful.
He says that it becomes a unity: it is not that austerity in the ascetics is visible (like the pearls), and the Lord inspiring it is invisible (like the string), but that the Lord is both the austerity and the ascetics practising it: ‘In Me as austerity the ascetics are woven.’ In this realization, the ‘pearls’ are really knots in the string itself, which from a little distance look like separate things, held together by something underlying them.
In III.27–29 there was a brief mention of the three strands or energy-qualities (guṇa) of material nature (prakṛti). The Lord now describes in detail, with beautiful similes and illustrations, this nature. It is divine, and he calls it his māyā (trick-of-illusion). Dr Shastri in his writings on the Gītā often referred to these passages, as showing that the world is not evil, but a magic show put on by the Lord. True, there is a deception, but it is like the deception put on by actors in a classical drama, and voluntarily accepted by the audience, who feel the beauty in even tragic drama. However, their acceptance of the deception should not become involuntary: if it does, they will suffer. They must not give the stage show independent existence, so that they cannot dissolve its reality at will. They must see the Lord in all.
On Me all this universe is strung,
Like chains of pearls on a string.
The Gītā repeatedly states that these descriptions are to be taken as meditations; again and again it speaks of the yogin-devotee as ‘yukta’, which means literally ‘yoked in yoga’. Yukta is in fact the same word as the English ‘yoked’. Śaṅkara regularly glosses it as samādhi.
The chapters VII to X give warnings against taking the world as independently real, and against worship of some limited aspect of the Lord in order to get things desired. Such worshippers, if they have purity and faith, do indeed get what they have prayed for, though it may be only after a long time. It depends on the intensity and continuity of the prayer. But such selfish results can be only temporary, and they will have strengthened their own illusion.
Verses 16–18 give an early hint at the devotion of the one on the Path of Knowledge, who now seeks Freedom in the being of God:
VII.16 Four kinds of men worship Me, all virtuous people: those in distress, those seeking knowledge, those seeking success, and the Knowers.
17 Of them, the Knower, ever set in yoga with One-pointed devotion, is highest;
Very dear to the Knower am I, and he is dear to Me.
18 All of them are noble, but the Knower I take to be my very self; Firm in yoga he strives to reach Me, as the highest goal.
How is it that a Knower, who knows his Self to be the all-pervading creator-Lord already, can be said to strive to reach the Lord? This verse shows him striving, by yoga and devotion, to reach the Lord whom he already knows to be his own Self. It seems a contradiction, but this effort, this striving, is to remove memories of the past, which cloud his present direct awareness of identity. It is not to reinforce his Knowledge of the identity, which is an unshakable fact.
How is it that the fact seems to be shaken? Śaṅkara explains the point in detail in Chapter XIII, and elsewhere. For the moment it may be enough to recall that Napoleon, after he had become Emperor, was always rather nervous about his behaviour, though he knew that all he did would be accepted with fulsome praise. Similarly Nero, after becoming Emperor, was very nervous of failing in musical contests, though he knew that the judges would award him the victory. He knew, and yet memories of the past, before he was Emperor, somehow shook that knowledge, though they could never actually destroy it.
Getting to grips with the Gita in daily life
Realization of the Supreme Self: The Bhagavad Gita Yoga-s by Trevor Leggett
‘Be a Jack of all trades and you’ll be a master of none,’ said someone who had reckoned without those rare people like Trevor Leggett.
For the author of this fascinating Gita study guide is, without doubt, a most extraordinary man – yet one you are unlikely to have heard of. Glance at his Wikipedia page and you’ll discover he was a judo champion, teacher and author, head of the BBC’s Japanese service for 24 years and was one of the first Europeans to study martial arts in Japan. Read further down you’ll find a line or two about his being a committed yogi too.
In 1936, he met Hari Prasad Shastri, a teacher of Adhyatma Yoga . Shastri became his teacher of yoga and its philosophy for 18 years.
His heritage gives us insight into the font of this man’s capabilities. His father was Ernest Leggett, professional violinist and recognised child prodigy. Whether it was nature or nurture that set Trevor off on his life path, his body of work and its breadth is impressive. This book, one of 30 he published in his lifetime, is divided into five parts. As well as giving a commentary on chapters 2-18 of the Gita it also includes a section devoted to Shri Shankara on Gita Practice, a section on Pointers for Practice and a Technical Appendices. If you’re looking for a Gita book that explores how to apply its theory into daily practice, this is a useful addition to your collection. This book has been recently republished in paperback and is available via Amazon. If I’ve whetted your appetite to discover more about Trevor Leggett go to The Trevor Leggett Adhyatma Yoga Trust at www.tlayt.org to discover more, including recordings of Trevor Leggett lectures.
BWY SPECTRUM MAGAZINE
Leggett, Trevor 1995. Realization of the Supreme Self: The Bhagavad Gita Yoga-s. London: Kegan Paul International, pp. x, 234 pp.
As the author makes clear repeatedly during this book, it is an interpretation of the message of the Bhagavadgita on the basis of Sankara’s Advaitin commentary on the text and of the teachings of Dr. Hari Prasad Shastri, who taught in Britain for many years until his death in 1956. Dr. Shastri was the founder of the Shanti Sadan and the author was a pupil of his for eighteen years. The book is thus not primarily academic but confessional, aimed at others who wish to utilise the Bhagavadgita as part of their personal quest for enlightenment, and its style is discursive and anecdotal.
The volume is divided into five parts, of which the last, titled Technical Appendices, consists of extracts from Sankara’s Bhagavadgitabhasya mixed with some comments by the author that are not clearly distinguished from them. The first, introductory part includes some background to the Bhagavadgita (including the misleading statement in the opening paragraph that ‘what are sung [in the Bhagavadgita] are extracts from the Upanisad-s’) and a presentation of what Leggett regards as the special method of teaching employed in the Bhagavadgita – Teaching Down. By this is meant presenting at the start the highest wisdom and working downwards until the student grasps the message (a kind of intellectual Dutch auction); the rationale is, as Leggett puts it (p. 18), that ‘there is already a submerged intuition of the truth, which has to be stimulated by increasingly detailed instructions.’ It hardly needs saying that this accords well with Sankara’s view of the essential unity of the self and Brahman but considerably distorts the message of the Bhagavadgita itself.
The second part, ‘Yoga-s of the Gita’, accordingly offers an Advaitin interpretation and summary of the Bhagavadgita, taking each chapter briefly in turn, together with three excursuses by the author on ‘Arjuna’s Disbelief’, The Thinker, East and West’, and ‘Faith’, the first of which presents a jaundiced view of Arjuna’s supposed limitations (and includes two recurrent mistranscriptions – for Varsneya and Hrslkesa – in the table of Krsna’s names on pp. 41-3), while the last consists mainly of anecdotes about Stalin, Bertrand Russell and others. Leggett claims that, because Arjuna is unable to accept the teaching of the unity of atman and Brahman, the notion of karmayoga, the yoga of action, is presented as a simpler teaching and, to make it even simpler, the notion of bhakti, devotion to a deity, is added; he thus effectively reverses the original intentions of the text’s author(s). He suggests at one point (on p. 56) an impossibly late date for hathayoga ‘probably about the seventeenth century A.D.’; elsewhere (on p. 113) he paints a decidedly rosy picture of ancient Indian society as one of service to others, which is in odd contrast to his declaring in the fourth part (on p. 192) that Arjuna and the other Pandavas are illegitimate, through taking too literally their fathering by the gods.
The third part, ‘Sankara on Gita Practice’, accordingly presents the path as an upward progress, starting from devotion, passing through karmayoga, and reaching its full development in meditation on the atman. Apart from the much stronger emphasis on yoga practices, this section is reasonably true to Sankara’s ideas, although his belief that Sankara provides the sole true interpretation of the Bhagavadgita frequently leads him to conflate the commentary and the text in a way that misrepresents Krsna’s teachings, which are a much more complex synthesis of differing strands than Leggett is prepared to allow.
The fourth part, ‘Pointers for Practice’, moves then to Leggett’s own reflections on the practical training method that he sees in the Bhagavadgita. He makes the usual claim that Yoga is not based on faith but can be verified by experiment and practice and urges the significance of the relationship between spiritual teacher and pupil (exemplified throughout the book by the references to and quotations from Hari Prasad Shastri). The personal commitment of the author is here most fully apparent and gives the book a real interest as the record of the assimilation by a Westerner of this particular religious path. At the same time, of course, he implicitly recognises that the Bhagavadgita is much more than just a subject of academic enquiry and by the same token emphasises the fact that Sankara’s thought is not some abstract philosophy, as it is too often represented, but a profound search for the religious goal of release from the world cycle. The book as a whole is, indeed, a practical guide for potential adherents of the Advaitin tradition rather than a scholarly review of what the Bhagavadgita says – in that lies its strength and its weakness.
John Brockington, The University of Edinburgh