Class III: The Bhagavad Gita
This class, we discussed the most disturbing of the books well read this semester - as well as the most religious. Although the Bhagavad G
The story is set on the field of battle, with Krishna (God) urging Arjuna to undertake his sacred duty: going to battle with a clan of family members. In this case, the battle is not a metaphor. It is full of blood and death, and not in the good way, either!
My questions were more plaintive this week, urgent. I ones by boring the slippery slope that obedience could lead to. From the gita to a religious justification for war is a very short path. One that I explored in my book, a fatal addiction: war in the name of God. In fact, the gotta had a prominent role in that exposition!
How central is obedience to mystical behavior? And obedience to what? Our "sacred duty"? How do we know what our sacred duty is? We were unanimous in assuring that the impetus for knowing this answer couldn't come from outside our heads. So the discovery of a sacred duty came down to a combination of intuition and faith. And if we were wrong?
There are no signposts on the road of mysticism...
We found many contradictions in the text. The highest ideal is removal and meditation, they the highest ideal is also sacred action. One should act with complete intention, yet completely disregard the fruits of action. One should consider themselves both already dead, as well as indestructible.
All mystical truths come from and return to paradox. A clear and consistent truth is a lower truth of the senses, politics and society.
We continued to chew over the idea of action without attachment to the fruits of action. For instance, to me, things means creating art, plays, books, institutes etc. Without worrying about audience. Doing it only for the pleasure or meaning taken through the act of creation.
We discussed other values explored in the text: discipline (not at the top of western values); asceticism (another non-starter in a capitalistic system) and obligation. How might we apply these
Well. So. Action is OK, as long as it is disciplined. Not grotesque or yearning or pointed entirely toward the fruits of action, outcomes or goals.
We cycled back to one of the most disturbing aspects of the ancient teachings: that we might have to accept violence as a necessary spiritual obligation. I should understand, right? It was exactly five years ago that I, myself, stabbed a man almost to death. And not only in the moment did I experience a clarity unlike anything I have ever felt, but for not one second since that time have I ever regretted it. Could a sacred warrior look at their work in the same light? Even when the violence is subsumed in politics, religion, greed, ignorance and patriotism (which is stupid and immoral, as Tolstoy assured)?
Is violence a central aspect of human nature, and therefore cannot be denied? Is the only possibility for a stable civilization to channel this violence institutionally, either through politics or religion?
I proposed in my book, A Fatal Addiction: War in the Name of God, that violence is, indeed, a central aspect of human nature. Stemming from our lowest, animal nature, violence mixes in the human soul with the yearning for the spirit, which represents the highest aspects of our being. As Rumi noted:
Man is a mixture of animality (haywani) and rationality (notq), and his animality is as inseparable a part of him, as his rationality. He is like a torrent in which mud is mixed.The clear water is his rational speech, and the mud his animality.
A Fatal Addiction asserted that both violence and spirituality are so deeply embedded in the human soul as to be inseparable: they represent the very same yearning (for something "more"), just in different (and opposing) vernaculars. In fact, violence can be a form of prayer -- something that we definitely see evinced in the Gita.
We moved on to discuss reincarnation. There was a general sense among us that we have experienced whispers and vague messages from places we could not understand: past lives, past relationships, past experiences. I told how when I was young, I was convinced that my parents had mis-named me: I was, in fact, Pietr, and I had been in the infantry in the German Army in World War II. I also have a strong affinity with Spain -- was "I", at some earlier time, a Sepahrdic Jew, living as a poet or searcher in the magical world?
One of our participants told of shades and shadows visiting her, just outside of her conscious grasp. We talked further of uncommon connections -- relationships which flared so quickly, that they might well reach back into an earlier lifetime -- or series of them.
Can you share a soul with another living person? A literal soul-mate? What might this feel like? Would you necessarily encounter them? Or simply reconvene after both embodiments had passed away?
Is the idea of reincarnation just a "cop-out," borne of the fear of death? And why are we so afraid of death? Can we ever be ready for death? The mystics certainly are -- they live as if already dead, and great the actuality with a glowing acceptance of having already been there.
Stories were told of people that we know in their 90s, hanging on desperately to a life that appears -- from the outside -- not to be much worth living. Why couldn't they come to terms with the next stage of their existence?
I told the story (recounted in the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, which we will read later in the semester) about monks who were said to cross the frontier between living and dying while still here with us. When their body finally did give way, and they were declared "dead" in the Western sense, their carcasses cooled slowly over weeks, as their essence made their way leisurely through the Bardo regions between the two states. This has been documented.
According to the Gita, death should hold no fascination or fear. We are both already dead, and indestructible. Even so, we should welcome death. As Rumi noted: "Death is the bridge whereby the lover rejoins the beloved."
Yet still. We all know people -- probably including ourselves -- who are close to death, appear to have miserable lives and no future possibilities, yet still cling desperately to life. We discussed this in the context of how differently death is represented in mysticism (as a transition) and contemporary culture (as an enemy).
We talked of suicide. Those who commit suicide are not usually the homeless, the abject, the refugee, the completely miserable. The kind of existential crisis which leads one to commit suicide is an internal state, and not one of physical means. In fact, it is usually those with at least some material means who do kill themselves. And those who do so for religious reasons, of course -- as an act of prayer. The highest form of faith.
We finished by discussing who might be a "teacher," in the sense that Krishna was for Arjuna. If those who know don't speak, and those who speak don't know (Lao Tzu), how are we to chart our way forward?
So, what are we left with?The disciples of the Baal Shem hear that a certain man had a great reputation for learning. Some of them wanted to go to him and find out what he had to teach. The master gave them permission to go, but first the asked him: “and how shall we be able to tell whether he is a true zaddik?” (i.e. spiritual leader of the community)
The Baal Shem replied. “Ask him to advise you what to do the keep unholy thoughts from disturbing you in your prayers and studies. If he gives you advice, then you will know that he belongs to those who are of no account. For this is the service of men in the world to the very hour of their death: to struggle time after time with the extraneous, and time after time to uplift and fit into to the nature of the Divine Name.”