Reflections on the Gita
Revised version of speech at a felicitation to Swami Chinmayananda in Colombo
- originally published in the Sri Lanka Sunday Times, 17 May 1981
It is said that in the area of religion that which is the truth defies description and that which is described is never the truth: or as the saying goes in Tamil – Kandavan Vindilan, Vindavan Kandilan.
There is a story that is related of Bodhirama that he had once gathered his disciples about him to test their perception. One of the pupils said, 'In my opinion truth is beyond affirmation or negation.'. Bodhirama replied 'You have my skin'. Another disciple said, 'In my view it is like Ananda's sight of the Buddha – seen once and forever', and Bodhirama said, 'You have my flesh'. And, then as the story goes, the third disciple came before Bodhirama and was silent, and Bodhirama said, 'You have my marrow.'
Discussion and dialogue in the area of religion are but parts of skin and flesh – not the marrow – a marrow which is never found in words.
The inquisitive and inquiring mind of man has through the centuries sought to understand that which is beyond words. The mind itself represents a stage and by no means the final stage, in an evolutionary process which has witnessed a continuing change from inanimate to animate, from stone to plant to animal to man, and each stage has brought with it a greater degree of consciousness.
It is an evolutionary process which has resulted in the formation of the seemingly intricate fore brain of man today and it is this self conscious mind of man which seeks to know, which seeks to understand.
How is this understanding brought about? In what way does an ordinary mind comprehend?
One says ordinary mind because one can neither reject nor ignore the experience of those extraordinary beings who have arisen on this earth from time to time and who appear to have comprehended the total reality and who were one with it; enlightened beings to whom time and space dissolved in an eternity which was boundless.
In some way they appear to have transcended the limitations of the self conscious mind and their lives have afforded a living testimony, for those who wish to see, of what is perhaps an innate capacity in each one of us to perceive the whole and become holy. Because, it seems to me that is what holiness is about – the capacity to perceive the whole, the capacity to understand the total reality in its entirety, unbounded by space and unbounded by time.
The ordinary mind does not however comprehend the whole. It seems to deal effectively only with parts of the total reality. It directs its attention to discrete and separate parts of the whole. In order that it may understand, the mind separates and conceptualises. It separates that which is connected and the very process of separation distorts an understanding of the whole.
The mind thinks in sequence in time. The present is a fleeting moment and is then gone forever. Thoughts are so much grist to its mill. Words and concepts are the instruments of its trade. The mind seeks to clarify one concept by having recourse to another. It defines one word with another. There is no end to this process nor is there a starting point.
The mind deals in opposites. There is no idealism without materialism; there are no means without ends; there is no detachment without attachment; there is no free will without determinism; there is no good without bad. If everything was good what would it mean? Presumably, we would stop using the word. The mind speaks of theses, antithesis and synthesis and describes this as the dialectical process. And every synthesis is another thesis and gives rise to another antithesis and yet another synthesis – and the process is endless. The mind then speaks of dialectical idealism and dialectical materialism.
The need to use opposites is the need of the mind that lives in the duality of I and not I, and the mind extends this duality, extends these seeming opposites, to everything that it deals with. And more often than not, it does not stop to ask: who am 'I'? Are there two 'I's – the one who asks the question and the other, about whom the question is asked?
The inquiring and inquisitive mind – the restless mind, the monkey mind of man – allows one thought to play with another and ends up with what it then triumphantly describes as a rationalisation. The mind discovers seemingly broader and broader concepts and seemingly more and more general laws. But what is the result?
From the vantage point of each new law, the mind then perceives an increasing area of the unknown and greater and greater areas of the unknown come within the vision of man. The search for fundamental laws, the search for fundamental particles, the search for absolute truths, inside the trap of duality is in the nature of an adventure to possess an ever receding mirage.
"…reason cannot arrive at any final truth because it can neither get to the root of things nor embrace their totality. It deals with the finite, the separate and has no measure for the all and the infinite." – The Future Evolution of Man – Sri Aurobindo
But that is not to say that the mind does not have an important role to fulfil.
" …. reason has a legitimate function to fulfil, for which it is perfectly adapted; and this is to justify and illumine for man his various experiences and to give him faith and conviction in holding on to the enlarging of his consciousness." – The Future Evolution of Man – Sri Aurobindo
In India, which to many of us is the cradle of civilisation, there were humans who thousands of years ago used the mind but who were not entrapped in it; who did not turn away from the mind but who pushed the frontiers of the mind and transcended it in their quest to understand – a quest which ended in the realisation that there was no quest after all. Swami Chinmayananda is a living descendent of that great Indian tradition. That which he has said and written has enabled many to find a new understanding of themselves – and nobody understands anything if he has not understood himself.
Those who have heard Swami Chinmayananda on the Bhavad Gita have come away with a fresh awareness and some insights – insights which in the end they themselves will need to integrate in their being. That which they hear must relate to that which is within their experience. Otherwise words only make noise.
That which was said by Lord Krishna to Arujna in the battlefield was both simple and fundamental – simple to declare but fundamental in content. It was a call for action in the battlefield and where else is there a greater need for action. And Lord Krishna urging Arjuna to do battle against those whom Arjuna regarded as his friends, his teachers and his relations, tells Arujna, "To action you have a right, but not to the fruits thereof."
This oft repeated statement of the Gita is of very direct relevance to all of us who are engaged in activity or action of one kind or another. The detachment which the Gita speaks about is not the opposite of attachment. It is not a dead detachment. It is not a negative detachment. Understanding the Gita is not a mere intellectual exercise in the trap of opposites.
There is in each one of us an urge to live without conflict, without opposites, to understand the whole and become holy. There is in each one of us a path of harmony, our dharma, and it is this path of harmony which the Gita enjoins us to follow. For Arujna that path was to engage in battle.
Swami Chinmayananda, who is perceived by many as one of the great living exponents of the teachings of the Gita, has made a significant contribution to further our understanding of ourselves and there is much that we can learn from that which he has said and from that which he has written.