The Bhagavad Gita
This ancient Indian book, written as a conversation between Krishna and a prince called Arjuna, has been studied over the centuries by people from all spiritual backgrounds who were struggling to find a way to live in this far from perfect world. It was written at a time when “yoga” perhaps brought to mind a person who had left behind everyday life to spend their time in meditation in a cave in the Himalayas.
It is about a battle which Arjuna is facing but which he is very unwilling to fight as on the opposing side are members of his family. He asks Krishna what would be the right course of action and their conversation is a parable showing our own internal dialogue as we try to live as best we can.
“Prepare for war with peace in thy soul....” No surprise to learn that Gandhi treasured this book.
Arjuna goes on to ask whether it is better to take action or to withdraw from the world into a contemplative life in search of wisdom. He is told that everyone should do their duty, their “dharma”, without looking for reward:
“Therefore, without being attached to the results of activities, one should act as a matter of duty, for by working without attachment one attains the Supreme.”
We can learn from very young children here as they do everything with all their energy and happily repeat an activity over and over again without focussing on the end result. Maria Montessori, a pioneering educator, was another reader of the Bhagavad Gita.
Some key yoga concepts which are introduced in this book are
When we wonder why we are here and what our purpose in life is, the answer is that we all have a place in the universe and a duty to do, and once we have found that, whatever it might be, we do not need to look for anything more, in the same way that a bird sings in the morning or a flower grows and opens. We do not have to look for praise or worry about not being good enough – we just “do our best and leave the rest”.
The four paths of yoga
Karma yoga – the path of action and service to others
Jnana yoga – the path of seeking knowledge
Bhakti yoga – the path of devotion
Raja yoga – the path of meditation
Whichever path we follow will eventually bring us to the other three in some way so it does not matter which we choose, but for most of us Karma yoga will be the easiest starting point.
The three gunas or states of being
Sattva – “peaceful light”
Rajas – “restless life”
Tamas – “lifeless darkness”
We may experience all these states in constantly changing proportions as we go through the cycle of the day, season, and life. Once we are aware of this we can work towards more sattva by doing things which calm our agitated state or lift our lethargic moods and bring us back to balance. And the more we experience peaceful light the more we want to keep going to that place.
Some of these teachings are said to date back thousands of years, when people went to sit at the feet of teachers who lived in the forests to learn about the deeper meaning of existence. (The Sanskrit word “Upanishad” is made up of “upa” – near; and “shad” to sit). They can be read as beautiful poems, as parables to help us understand yoga philosophy, or as a guide towards the practice of meditation. Many lovely images from the natural world are used – bees, caterpillars, birds, seeds, the sun and the moon. They are often in the form of conversations between the seeker after truth and the teacher or family member, the Lord of Death, or Thunder! Questions asked include: Where did the universe come from? What is it that makes us alive and aware? Is there anything after death? How can we be happy?
Key concepts introduced in the Upanishads include:
The 5 Koshas or layers
The physical body is described as being made from food and we are told to respect food and not waste it, to use it as medicine, and to share with the hungry.
The 2 part nature of the self and the ego:
“There are two selves, the separate ego and the indivisible Atman (the innermost part of us which is eternal) .When one rises above I and me and mine, the Atman is revealed as one’s real self.” These two aspects of our minds are also portrayed as two beautiful birds sitting together on a branch – one enjoys the sweetness in life and suffers at the bitter parts, while the other, not tasting either, observes with equanimity. These birds are described as “inseparable”: we are not trying to divide ourselves, but to know the whole.
The concept of unity is central to the philosophy – the “indivisible unity of life”.
The 4 parts of Om and the nature of consciousness
Chanting Om is often a part of yoga classes all over the world, but it is a sacred mantra and we should try to understand it. It is also written AUM so that the three syllables are pronounced leaving a beat of silence as a fourth syllable. These represent the four states of consciousness – external awareness through the senses, the dreaming or internal state, deep and dreamless sleep with no awareness of mind or body, and the “superconscious” state where we go beyond the senses and the intellect and join with a higher consciousness. Of chanting Om the Upanishads say:
“Side by side, those who know the self and those who know it not do the same thing, but it is not the same: the act done with knowledge, with inner awareness and faith, grows in power.”