The word ‘Gita’ means ‘sung’ – and the formal title of the Gita is ‘the upanishads, the ancient spiritual texts, sung by the Lord’. They were sung for the benefit of people still fully involved and engaged in the world – the upanishadic seekers of truth, in a calm environment, as if they were in a scientific laboratory. Principles are discovered in a scientific laboratory, but then they have to be applied outside. We can study gravity best in an isolated environment, preferably with a vacuum – but then, once the principle is established, we can see gravity at work, even in the autumn leaves carried into the sky. Gravity is still at work there. Once the principle has been established, we’re able to recognise it, in the same way the spiritual truth is established in calmness – but it has to be recognised, also, in the tumult of life.
Three of the upanishadic scenes are calm.
One of the oldest upanishadic examples is of a woman disciple – there was no prejudice against women in 600 BC. Maitreyi often spoke about Brahman, about spiritual truth, about God, and enquired into it. When the time comes, she is offered the choice: great wealth, or something else. She says, “If I have great wealth, will it make me immortal?” The teacher says, “No, your life will be the life of any very wealthy person.” She said, “Then tell me what will make me immortal, which you know.” Then he says, “Sit down and listen to what I teach and meditate on it.”
In another upanishad, the upanishad of the questions, there are several of them who seek for the highest truth. They have studied the truth; now, they seek for the highest truth. They hear of a great sage who can teach them. So they go to him, and he says, “Stay here with me, for a year, and practice meditation – sanyam, a technical word for entering samhadi – control of the senses, tapas and brahmacharya. Then you can ask me questions, and I’ll answer.”
In the third one, Prajapati, the great sage, had a saying: “There is a Self free from death, free from grief. It is to be sought. When that is attained, all is attained.” There’s a little more, but that is the main. “There is a Self free from death, free from grief, which is to be sought after. When that is attained, all is attained.” And the King of the gods Indra and the King of the demons, they hear this saying, and they come to the teacher. He tells them to stay, and then they can ask a question. They stay, and they perform ‘service’. Well, the word is translated to ‘service’, as in the same way it’s translated to ‘service’ in the Gita, but actually it means ‘wanting to hear’. They attend on the teacher, wanting to hear about the Self free from death, free from grief, and how to attain it.
It’s not simply performing a service but it’s a service, wanting to hear, in search of truth. In the same way, in the Gita, the scene is a battlefield and the hero is fully engaged in the affairs of the world, not like these calm seekers of the upanishads. He’s asking not about the highest truth, but which is the best for him to do – to fight or not to fight? Civil war and fighting will mean killing many of the people he knows and respects and reveres, who are on the other side, and his own side, also. He asks, “Which is the best?” Now, first of all, the teacher wants to find out whether this is just the depression which many soldiers feel just before an engagement. They are brought out of it by what we would now call a pep talk about honour, about your duty to all the people to whom you’re pledged, and so on. The teacher presents this, but it has no effect.
So this is no ordinary depression; this is a desire to find something much deeper than simply, “Is it better to win or to give way and become a renunciate?” The teaching begins with reincarnation. The teacher says, “Well, this is a battle and many will die, but they cannot be killed. There is a great Self in all, which puts on the bodies as men put on clothes. When the bodies are worn out or destroyed, it puts on new ones.” It’s a very attractive teaching. One commentator has said, “Attractive and it’s logical, and, if it’s presented well, you can believe it for half an hour. If it’s a really good speaker, you believe for half a month. If it’s a really brilliant exposition, you believe it for half a year. But after that, you start thinking, ‘Well, how do they know?'” The teaching is given, but it is not confirmed in the experience of the hero. The teacher goes on and describes the great Self, but still there’s no spark of experience awoken in the hero. Then he describes the karma yoga, which is yoga of action, not simply realisation. The main point of the yoga of action first presented is – as the quotation from our teacher said – “To be able to act vigorously, but without fever, without elation if things go well, without fear of them going wrong, without depression if they do go wrong. To be able to act with the mind clear and serene, and yet, vigorously.”
The Gita gives the first definition of this yoga when it says, “It is evenness of mind, and this is skill in action.” Shankara comments that, “Even in worldly affairs, if our mind is not even, we are not successful. There may be some good result by chance, but our actions are not efficient.” Our teacher used to give some humorous examples of how the clarity of the mind is upset when it becomes clouded by what he called silly personal dislike. “Well, he may be a very famous doctor, but why should I do what he says? I didn’t like him.” – what he called a silly dislike; or, “The ship can’t be sinking. The captain is such a nice man.” – a silly personal attachment. There’s no evenness of mind, and consequently, there’s no clear vision. So the yoga is given. This is the first element of the yoga, the evenness of mind, and the second one is that the mind, in meditation, should be brought to stillness. The example is given, later on – ‘like a steady, burning flame in a windless place, burning steadily, without any interruption or flickering’.
© Trevor Leggett
Talks in this series are:
Part 1: Marionettes and Free Agents
Part 4: Teaching of devotion