The Gita tells us that we are whirled by Maya like marionettes, jerking through a series of reflexes. Shankara makes an analysis of this in another verse of the Gita. The verse says, ‘Even the Knower, even the Jnani, acts in accordance with his nature, what will restraint avail?’ The opponent says, “Well, in that case, there’s no point in anyone making any efforts at all.” But Shankara says, “No, because we are held to our nature only through attraction and aversion. If they can be annulled, if their binding power can be annulled, then we are free from our own nature, which makes us behave like marionettes”.
We can be dressed very beautifully as marionettes. We can have the role of a king or a very rich man. We may think that it is not so bad, but in actual fact, the Gita points out all these things are illusory and they end. As our teacher said, “The lower self, expressing itself in ambition, material desires, attraction and aversion, and other limitations – they all end in sore despair.” The man is a marionette and the seeming successes are no successes at all, they are simply movements of this great wheel.
It can be covered up. In France the Zen meditation has become very popular and a Japanese newspaper sent a reporter to report on what happened. The reporter was not a Zen man at all, so he just reported what he saw. There were 100 people and they had a temple, they built a temple, or had a temple built, a small one. They met there regularly, once or twice a week and he said they were intensely serious about it. All the monks in Japan wear a black robe and these French people, although they were not monks, they all took with them and put on, for the meditation period, a black robe, so that they would be, so to speak, honorary monks. Fifteen out of the hundred had had their heads shaved. Again, they were not monks, but they wanted to do the thing properly and be as monks. His report said they sat there in this silence, which was broken only very occasionally by the leader explaining some point of Zen philosophy. He said the atmosphere was very solemn – in fact, he said, “It was sombre”.
Anyway, he, himself, sat through this sombre silence and then the bell rang and he said, suddenly, the atmosphere lightened and he saw that everybody was rushing to the bar. They had an open bar in the temple and everybody in their black robes and those with their shaven heads were rushing to the bar. The reporter made one or two rather acid comments on it. The movements of the marionette can, so to speak, be covered up, but in the end the automatic movements still take place.
In Macbeth, when the witches are going to manipulate him, they tell him this one prophesy which comes true immediately, and another one – and then the witches say, “The charm is wound up”. In Shakespeare’s time they had watches which wound with springs. They wound him up like a clockwork toy with these prophesies, and now he would go through the actions that were controlled by them, like a marionette. Shankara says that we are controlled by our illusions and that even with the man of knowledge, who knows that it is an illusion, for a time the memories can still go on and affect him. He makes this point in a number of places in his Gita commentary.
You think, “Well, how can that be so?” Well, I saw a dog once who had been tethered in a country where they don’t know how to treat the animals very well. They tether the dog for three or four months simply to a post in the garden and he nearly goes mad, barking with excitement, trying to get loose. Finally, he becomes apathetic and then he doesn’t go outside that circle, even when the rope is taken away. He comes to the edge of it and then he stops. I made friends with him and although his legs were weak, I finally succeeded in getting him to go beyond the circle in the company of a human being. He broke that sort of magic circle provided he was right next to me. Then we walked along and there was a little gully in the ground to take rainwater. It was about 3” deep and about 2” wide, made of porcelain to channel off the rainwater. When he came to this he wouldn’t cross it. He had never seen anything like that before – the earth opening up, so to speak. So I had to put down a newspaper and, once the gap in the earth was covered up, then he would cross the newspaper. After a bit, he was able to cross it without the newspaper – but he always hesitated when he would come up to this thing, there would always be a check. He remembered the time when he had seen the earth was opening up. Although he had clear knowledge that there was nothing, no danger there at all, still the memory of the past illusion affected him.
Shankara says that we can free ourselves from being marionettes, because we are held to the machine by attraction and aversion. He says, “Love and hate are the two enemies of man. Let him avoid them by renunciation, by detachment”. He makes the point that there is a sort of renunciation that can come from the impossibility of getting something. If it is absolutely impossible and unthinkable for us, we don’t think about it at all. Well, in a certain sense, we have a detachment from it. We are not tempted by it, because there is no possibility at all of anything being actualised. Shankara says this is not true detachment – though the man feels that he is detached from, say fame, because he has no chance of becoming famous, in fact, he may not be [detached].
Our teacher said that, “While we are praying, we are praying for this or that,” and we say, “The prayers are not answered, because when we pray for things we don’t necessarily get them.” He used to mimic sometimes, saying, “We pray that our bank balance may go up, our shares may go up. We pray we should be speedily relieved of some illness.” Then, it doesn’t happen and we say, “Oh, my prayer is not answered, my prayer is not answered” Then he said, “Well, why have silly prayers?”
© Trevor Leggett
Talks in this series are:
See also: Marionettes and Free Agents