NOTES on The Path of Yoga

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The Path of Yoga

The Bhagavad Gita (Sanskit meaning “Song of the Lord”) is one of the sacred works of India. It is taken from Book 6 of the very long epic work Mahabharata, which has about 100,000 verses. In the Bhagavad Gita, Arjuna — the son of a king — is on the verge of going to war. His charioteer is Krishna, who is the incarnation of the god Vishnu (the Preserver). The whole of the Bhagavad Gita consists of a dialogue between Arjuna and Krishna. Arjuna asks questions, and Krishna answers them.

As one of the sacred books of Hinduism, the Bhagavad Gita has several ideas that form its intellectual background. These ideas include belief in:

  • Reincarnation. The Hindus believe that all of us, except those who achieve enlightenment, will be reincarnated over and over again. We die, but then we live again in another body. We will be reincarnated as a human being, or as an animal.
  • Karma. Through our actions and deeds, we acquire karma, which will determine what we shall come back as in our next incarnation. If our deeds are good, we will come back as a human being of high status. If our deeds are bad, we will come back as an animal of low status.
  • The Wish for the Extinction of Desire. In the West, human beings usually want personal immortality. They hope to have an afterlife so that they can continue to love others and to acquire knowledge. Often, in the East, human beings wish to escape from the bonds of desire. The desire is to escape from the bonds of karma and reincarnation.
  • Yoga. Yoga is a practice that will lead to the extinction of desire. There are two forms of yoga — the yoga of knowledge and the yoga of action — that are described below. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna tells Arjuna about the yoga of action.

The Path of Yoga

At the beginning of the Bhagavad Gita, Arjuna is filled with sorrow because he does not want to fight in a civil war. However, Krishna tells him,

“Don’t be a coward, Arjuna.

“It doesn’t become you at all.

“Shake off your weakness and rise!”

Arjuna then asks:

“How can I fight Bhishma and Drona [his rivals],

“fitter objects for my veneration?”

Krishna replies:

“You mourn those, Arjuna, who do not deserve mourning.

“The learned mourn neither the living nor the dead.”

One reason why the learned mourn neither the living nor the dead is because the Self lives on despite the state of the body.

According to Krishna,

“How utterly strange that bodies are said to be destroyed

“when the immutable, illimitable and indestructible Self lives on!”

Because of this, Krishna asks,

“… how can [a man] possibly kill, or make another kill?”

Krishna sums up his main point in this way:

“This embodied Self, Arjuna, is imperishable,

“You have no reason to grieve for any natural creature.”

Then Krishna speaks about the “truths of action.” One way to break the “fetters of karma” is through the path of knowledge; the other way is through the path of action. To walk the path of action, one must

“[…] give up attachment, be indifferent to failure and success. […]

“With this mental poise,

“you shall release yourself from evil and good deeds.”

Much Eastern philosophy assumes that we are reincarnated over and over again. What you do in this life will determine what or who you will come back as in the next life. The goal of the individual is to not come back at all, but instead to break the cycle of continually being reborn and to eliminate all desires.

Arjuna then asks,

“Who is the man of poise, Krishna?

“Who is steady in devotion?

“How does he speak, rest, walk?”

Krishna replies by saying that the man of poise is that person who

“[…] has shed all desire;

“he is content in the Self by the Self.

“He is steady. He endures sorrow.

“He does not chase pleasure.

“Affection, anger and fear do not touch him.

“He is not selfish.

“He does not rejoice in prosperity.

“He is not saddened by want.

“He can recall his senses from their objects

“as the tortoise pulls in its head.

“Objects scatter away from the good but lazy man,

“but desire remains.

“In the perfect state, however, desire also goes.”

The Yoga of Action

Arjuna then asks,

“If, as you say, Krishna, knowledge exceeds action,

“why do you urge me to this terrible war?”

Krishna replies by pointing out two ways of living life. The way you should live your life depends on the kind of person you are, but both ways involve yoga. One way of leading life — best for contemplative people — is the yoga of knowledge; the other way of leading life — best for active people — is the yoga of action. Both ways of leading life are suitable and lead to God. However, if one chooses to follow the yoga of action, one’s actions must be selfless. Therefore, Krishna advises Arjuna to

“[…] work, but work selflessly.

“All deeds are traps, except ritual deeds.

“Hence the need for selfless action.”

The yogi (a person who practices yoga) of action is known as the karma yogi. A person who was a karma yogi in his life was Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948). According to his secretary, Gandhi called the Bhagavad Gita his “spiritual reference work.”

Louis Fischer’s book Gandhi: His Life and Message for the World, quotes Gandhi’s definition of the “perfect karma yogi”:

He is a devotee who is jealous of none, who is a fount of mercy, who is without egotism, who is selfless, who treats alike cold and heat, happiness and misery, who is ever forgiving, who is always contented, whose resolutions are firm, who has dedicated mind and soul to God, who causes no dread, who is not afraid of others, who is free from exultation, sorrow and fear, who is pure, who is versed in action yet remains unaffected by it, who renounces all fruit, good or bad, who treats friend and foe alike, who is untouched by respect or disrespect, who is not puffed up by praise, who does not go under when people speak ill of him, who loves silence and solitude, who has a disciplined reason. Such devotion is inconsistent with the existence at the same time of strong attachments.

All of the above Gandhi was able to sum up with one word: “Selflessness.”

Note: The quotations from the Bhagavad Gita that appear in this essay were translated by P. Lal.

Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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