Yoga in Troubled Times
Chapter XVIII, verse 61 of the Gita (and this is our teacher’s translation) says:
“The Lord rules the hearts of all beings dwelling therein, causing them to revolve like a machine by Maya, His magic power.” Then the next verse is: “The yogi must take refuge in Him with all his heart, instead of trusting his lower self which expresses itself in ambition, material desires, attraction and aversion, and other limitations which end in despair. By His grace the yogi will attain supreme peace, the highest state. The result of contact of the lower self with the Supreme Being is the transformation of the conditioned self into the Infinite.”
Chapter XVIII, verses 61 and 62 of the Bhagavad Gita say:
“The Lord dwells in the hearts of all beings, O Arjuna, whirling by Maya (His magic power) all beings, as if mounted on a machine. Fly unto Him for refuge with all thy being, O Bharata; by His Grace shalt thou obtain supreme peace and the eternal resting place.”
In these verses two things are given. One is that the Lord whirls the beings through His magic power, as if they were puppets on a machine. And secondly that through devotion to the Lord – the yoga of devotion, which includes the discipline and meditation and knowledge – the lower self, the puppet, becomes one, or is one, with the Supreme Being.
It’s thought that the puppet theatres in India were very old and they’d had two forms, as perhaps they have today. There’s the form in which the puppets are manipulated by strings from above – we know the phrase, “He’s pulling strings”, which means he has secret, invisible methods of influencing people. This comes from the picture of the puppet master, who’s above the stage and looks down with the machinery he’s got to manipulate the arms and legs and bodies of the puppets. The second form of the machine is one that we also see, sometimes in amusement arcades, where the puppets, so to speak, are like posts. They’re mounted on rods and by manipulating those rods you can make the puppets move in a series of fixed actions. You can make them turn that way, or make them kick or lift a hand, but their actions are mechanical.
It’s thought that in the Gita – Shankara’s commentary refers to ‘posts’, the dolls like ‘carved posts’ mounted on a platform – these were dolls, painted and decorated to look like various characters in a drama; and that they were on rods and underneath there was a great wheel which revolved; and the wheel had small projections which would push certain rods, so that a particular character would turn. Then the narrator would narrate the story – and when Ravana came in and drew his sword and lifted his sword, Sita would turn and then turn away from him, reject him – and the narrator would explain. The actions are completely limited and the original Sanskrit says He’s whirling them. The Lord dwelling in their heart is whirling them round as if they were mounted on a machine, and it’s thought the whirling refers to this great wheel.
There’s a Vedanta Sutra saying, “From the Lord are bondage and release – not only release but bondage also is from the Lord.” In this verse in the Gita, He says clearly, “I make the beings revolve, whirling them round, by my Maya, my magic power”. Elsewhere in the Gita, the Lord says, “Alas, my Maya, my magical power of illusion, is hard to cross”. Shankara says, “The Lord laments that the beings don’t see Him, but on the other hand it’s from the Lord Himself that there are bondage and release. And He says in Chapter 10 there are certain aspects of the world in which it is easy to see the Lord and one of them is the fascination from an addiction; “I am the gambling of the – well, the word is something like a – card-sharper.” It’s got a sense of cheating or being very ‘keen’, as the saying is today. It’s an addictive gambler who’s not above cheating to win. People who are not subject to gambling find this difficult to understand – the fascination of gambling. There’s a hymn in the Vedas to the dice, the magic in the dice. The Indians were particularly susceptible to gambling, which we don’t have here so much.
There have been gamblers here. Some of the sporting squires used to make large bets on all sorts of fantastic things and the famous squire Oswald Easton made a heavy bet on a cricket match with two players on each side. When the day came he was extremely ill and he asked for a postponement of the match, but his opponent, equally keen, said, “No – play or pay!” So the squire got up and though very ill, his partner was extremely skilful and they managed to win. He was willing to lose his life in order not to lose that bet. And recently a Yorkshire businessman went over to America with five thousand dollars, and he borrowed 500,000 dollars and set up a company selling computer technology. He said, “It’s like playing double or quits again and again, with your life. You can’t do that in Britain, but in America it’s quite the thing to do and you feel stimulated by it.” Habitual gamblers tell you that it’s only then that they really feel alive – not when they’re gambling for what they can afford, but when they’re gambling for far more than they can afford.
In India this was said to be a great test of character. They had a habit, as a ‘thank you’ present of telling the other party to ask for a boon – and that meant anything. Well that would not be common here for people to be prepared to risk allowing somebody to demand anything, even the life of the one who’s granting the boon. Great emphasis was laid on keeping the exact words of the boon, and that’s why King Dasharatha who had offered Queen Kaikeyi a boon, when she reserved that boon and later on claimed it, which was to disinherit the heir to the throne, that word had to be kept and Prince Rama, though he could have easily avoided it, insisted on following up the words of his father.
So the Gita tells us we are whirled by Maya like marionettes, jerking through a series of reflexes. Shankara in an analysis of this, in another verse of the Gita, the verse says “Even the Knower, 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 through attraction and aversion. If they can be annulled, if their binding power can be annulled, then we are freed from our own nature, which makes us behave like marionettes. We can be dressed very beautifully as marionettes, we can have a role of a king or a very rich man and we may conclude it’s not so bad. But in actual fact, the Gita points out that all these things are illusory and they end, as our teacher said, “The lower self, expressing itself in ambition, material desires for action 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’re simply movements of this great wheel.
Now it can be covered up. In France the Zen training 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 a hundred people and they built a temple, or had a temple built, a small one. They met there regularly, once or twice a week. Now 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 – although, again, they were not monks they had wanted to do the thing properly and be as monks. And his report said they sat there in this silence, which was broken only 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 a bell rang and he said suddenly the atmosphere lightened. Then he saw that everyone was rushing to the bar. They had a little bar in the temple and everybody in their black robes and their heads shaven were rushing to the bar, and he made one or two rather acid comments on it. The movements of the marionette can be, so to speak, covered up, but in the end the automatic movements will take place.
In Macbeth when the witches are going to manipulate him they tell him one prophesy which comes true immediately, and then another one, and then the witches say, “The charm’s wound up”. In Shakespeare’s time they had watches that were wound up with a spring. They wound him up like a clockwork toy with these prophesies and now he would go through, like a marionette, the actions that were controlled by them.
Shankara says that we’re controlled by our illusions and that even with the man of knowledge who knows that it’s 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. But you think, “Well how can that be so?” 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 tethered the dog to a post in the garden for three or four months – and he nearly goes mad, barking with excitement, trying to get loose, but finally he becomes apathetic. Then he doesn’t go outside that circle even when the rope is taken away. He comes to the edge of it, 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. And when we walked along there was a little gully in the ground to take rainwater – it was about three inches deep and about two inches wide and made of porcelain to channel off the rainwater. When he came to this he wouldn’t cross it. He’d never seen anything like that before, opening up, so to speak. So I had to put down a newspaper. And once the gap in the earth had been covered up, then he would cross the newspaper. After a bit he was able to cross it without the newspaper, but he always hated it – when he came up to this thing there’d always be a check. He remembered the time when he’d seen the earth was opening up. He’d never seen anything like that. So although he had clear knowledge that there was 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’re 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’s a sort of renunciation that can come from the impossibility of getting something. If it’s absolutely impossible and unthinkable for us, we don’t think about it at all. In a certain sense we have a detachment from them. We’re not tempted by it, because there’s no possibility at all of anything being actualised. Shankara says that this is no true detachment. The man feels he is detached from, say fame, because he has no chance of becoming famous – but in fact it’s not so, he may not be detached. Our teacher said that while we’re praying, we’re 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. He’d say we pray that our bank balance may go up, that our shares may go up. We pray that we should be speedily relieved of some illness. Then it doesn’t happen and we say, “My prayer’s not answered, my prayer’s not answered”, and he said, “Well, why have silly prayers”.
We can become habitual likers and dislikers over something that is quite illusory. For instance, people in this country, and in Europe generally, appreciate cheese, especially in France. I think De Gaulle made the remark, “How can you govern a country that’s got 173 different kinds of cheeses”. They admire cheese and the different varieties of it but to a traditional Japanese, cheese is food that gone bad. It’s rotten. Although they are used to it now, they were revolted by these Westerners stuffing this rotten food in their mouth – food that’s gone bad and claiming to enjoy it. At the beginning of the century anything foreign used to be called ‘cheesy’ and it was claimed that foreigners used to smell of cheese.
We think, “How ridiculous. Cheese is very nice.” But when we in turn are offered, in an expensive Chinese restaurant – eggs which are a year old – they’re purple. Hard boiled eggs a year old, taken out of their shells and they’re purple and grey and somehow you don’t much care for it. And the Chinese chef says “Go on, go on!” Well, if you can bring yourself to eat a bit of it, it’s not bad at all, but we’re rather revolted by the idea of an egg a year old. These likes and dislikes are something which simply we can see, in a sense, that they’re illusory, but nevertheless they’re quite strong.
Now Shankara makes the point about the world, he says, “The achievements and the gains of the world and the successes of the world are like food mixed with poison. You eat the food and it’s sweet (the word is for an Indian sweet, it’s mostly honey) – it’s a sweet, but there is poison in it. So you enjoy the sweetness but then later on the poison hits you. Now he says, quoting the verse from the Gita, that desire for an indulgence in the objects of the senses is the enemy, the constant enemy of the wise man; but it’s only the final enemy of the ignorant man. The ignorant man first thinks, “This is a friend” and he gulps down the sweet food. Later on, he knows it was an enemy. But the wise man – the man who knows rather – although eating the food, he knows it contains poison. So although it’s sweet and he tastes the sweetness of it, that sweetness is contaminated by the knowledge that he’s poisoning himself.
Well, this rather far-fetched example from India has come to life now for a large number of people who, when eating food that they like, are aware that’s it’s full of cholesterol, or whatever their particular allergy happens to be, and they’re in fact eating something that’s poisoning them – but nevertheless sometimes they go on eating it. Shri Dada says that there are symptoms of this poison – the mind goes to a low ebb. He says, if we engage our mind in property, bricks and stones, or in personal conversation, then the level of the mind ebbs low, the vitality of the mind is sapped. He says, you must make your whole life a yaja, a sacrifice, to bring about yoga. And one thinks, “Oh well, some things ought to be given up, but not everything – we have to be practical.” People are quite strong on particular points, and not so strong on other points. For instance, if one’s made quite a lot of money by working extremely hard for it, then one thinks, “Well, I’m entitled to have this, I’ve worked for this. I’ve given the world, exchange value, for this money – this has been honestly earned. But people who’ve just inherited money, well that really they ought to give up. They’ve done nothing for it and that should be given up.” Whereas the people who have inherited fame, a famous name, they feel, “No – people who have worked for fame, all that fame and all that wealth is based on egoism and consequently that very success is a reinforcement of their egoism and therefore that should be given up. For something that simply drops, as it were, from heaven without any planning or effort at all, that’s clearly a gift from heaven and as such it should be accepted.”
Well, in this way, what the other people have is clearly a candidate for being given up, whereas what we ourselves have, as one master of meditation said, “What we ourselves have somehow doesn’t seem the right candidate for renunciation”. And he says, “While we are full of desire and ambition we’re volcanoes and nothing can live in a volcano”. Now our teacher made this point – a country like New Zealand is extremely fertile. It is volcanic and was volcanic, but when the volcanoes have finally subsided, the land is extremely fertile. Our teacher said this is also a yogic truth, that people of very strong passion, when those passions are finally pacified the soil is extremely fertile for yogic inspiration. He made this point, he said, they’ve got to be pacified and the life has got to become one-pointed, and when it does it will be a very fertile field and the yogic plants will grow there.
We’re marionettes, Shankara says, but we can free ourselves from being marionettes, from being whirled by the Maya of the Lord by a method that the Lord himself gives us. And what happens then? The actions of the marionette that are fixed and determined and repetitive so that our lives become simply a repetition – again and again and again, the same thing – they can become free and creative and reflect the will of God, instead of reflecting our personal will. Nobody likes to be told they’re marionettes. When after a meeting someone says, “Oh well, once he said that, you were bound to do that. Every time he puts something up, you always oppose it, don’t you? We all know that, we had bets on it!” And he said, “What? No!” “Yes. There was this and this and this, wasn’t there?” And that’s always vigorously opposed – “Oh no! Everything he put up was very unsound”. And then they sometimes produce the ace of trumps. They say, “Do you remember that time when he put up something and you raised an objection? You said, “No, on the contrary, it’s the other way round”. And then he thought, and he said, “Well, do you know, I believe you’re right.” And then you immediately said, “I’m wrong”.”
Well, these are marionettes, and the teacher says while our actions are fixed and determined then they simply become meaningless. Well, what happens if – as chapter V of the Gita says – when the man is free from the bondage of the past sansakaras of his nature, prakriti as it is called, he will begin to receive inspiration and energy directly from the Lord? Then the actions are no longer predictable, they’re new. “I do nothing at all, thus would the Truth-knower think.” Yukta – Shankara translated the word as yoked – with the mind concentrated in Samadhi. One can think, “What would this be like? Would it be like being behind a glass plate, like the studio manager in a cubicle watching a drama going on? What would it actually be like?” “I do nothing at all, thus would the Truth-knower think, thus should the Truth-knower think.” Yukta – with mind in Samadhi. Though engaged in walking, talking, seeing, speaking. This is one of several places in the Gita where the samadhi is not only when sitting in the meditation posture, but is in the ordinary actions of life too.
To become a free agent means to cease to be a marionette controlled by the impulses of illusion and especially revolving around egoism. The ego forms one of the rods, whenever they are actuated by the machine, the whole puppet is actuated by the ego. A particular modern teacher has taken this point and said “You know, all these yogic practices are based on a fallacy, because the man who thinks – and he gives three examples – “I’ll accept the instruction, I’ll get up early in the morning and meditate”; or the man who thinks, “I’ll become a brahmachari”; or the man who thinks, “I will control anger and to the best of my ability I will try to forgive” – now all those three people are acting from egoism. Inevitably they will have the thought, “I am getting up early in the morning, they are all asleep”; “I am a brahmachari and that is the highest me”; “I forgive others who are vengeful”. He’s reinforcing the very ego that he’s supposed to be getting rid of. So all yogic practice is self-contradictory, it reinforces the ego. It’s the ego that decides to do it and the ego that carries it out.”
From the worldly point of view, apart from the spiritual point of view, a man like that probably has never actually done anything in his life. Because, as a matter of fact, when you take up something, for instance, like learning to drive a car or learning Chinese or embroidery or French cuisine, you don’t think, “I am a car driver.” You know that you’re absolutely hopeless and you need all your attention to become even passable. You don’t think, “I am an orientalist” after the first week of Chinese, when you realise there are two languages, not one, that you have to learn. Our teacher used to say that our ignorance increases as our knowledge increases. Well, that’s an example – the ordinary man thinks, “I don’t know Chinese”. The man who’s studied a little bit knows, “I don’t know the spoken Chinese, and I don’t know quite a different Chinese, the written language”. So his ignorance has increased. The first man doesn’t know that he doesn’t know written Chinese because he’s never heard of it. The ignorance increases. Not that the ego is inflated when people begin these tasks of discipline, but that the ego becomes humbled. It’s the people who do nothing that are more likely to have an inflated idea of what they would be able to do, if they cared to, but they don’t feel in the mood. Our teacher said the chief aim of man in life should be to acquire that exalted state of mind which is imperturbable, peaceful, free from grief and the pairs of opposites, acquiring which man becomes an instrument of God and divine energy pours through him. Now he said that as part of the practice for this, his students should attempt to the best of their ability to spread something of the Holy Truth to others. This comes again and again in the book The Heart of the Indian Mystical Teaching and he says it will not be easy. People who’ve never done any teaching think of the teacher as somehow raised above and thinking “I’ll give them that. That’s the level they’re on. I’ll give them that”. They don’t know anything about the responsibility of the teacher, or the opposition that the Truth will arouse. He says, “Those who spread the Gita in the West will be persecuted, ridiculed, vilified. If they still do not complain, there will be an upturn in the present cycle”. Again our teacher said, “They will hate you, they will curse you, they will spread damaging rumours about you.” But it’s not only yogis who suffer, and a great fellow disciple of our teacher remarked on this, “There are troubles in Yoga, but there are much greater troubles in the world”. And one of the Chinese sayings is that of course it is dangerous to practice yoga, but it is much more dangerous not to practice it. The teaching is from the Gita that the Lord himself will protect those who are devoted to Him and endeavour to serve by spreading the Gita. The Gita says, “This service is the highest service”.
I’ll read the first part again:
“The Lord rules the hearts of all beings dwelling therein, causing them to revolve like a machine by His magic power, Maya. The yogi must take refuge in Him with all his heart, instead of trusting his lower self which expresses itself in ambition, material desires, attraction and aversion, and other limitations which end in sore despair. By His grace the yogi will attain supreme peace, the highest state. The result of contact of the lower self with the Supreme Being is the transformation of the conditioned self into the Infinite.”
“The Lord dwells in the heats of all beings, O Arjuna, whirling by Maya (His magic power) all beings, as if mounted on a machine. Fly unto Him for refuge with all thy being, O Bharata; by His Grace shalt thou obtain supreme peace and the eternal resting place.”