Conversation held on Thursday, March 22nd at 12 Noon EST (11 Central)
“If one places all karman on brahman and acts disinterestedly, he is no more stained by evil than a lotus petal by muddy water.” Chapter 5
Summary of Chapter 5
The chapter begins with a question: Krishna seems to praise both the relinquishment of action and action. Arjuna wonders which is the better of the two?
Krishna’s answer is two-fold. First, he teaches about the identity between relinquishment and action: undertaking one, you find the fulfillment of both.
Secondly, Krishna describes the implication of being able to practice this identity: he is one who is “yoked with the yoga of brahman”, and tastes a serenity and happiness that is permanent, for he harbors no delusions, and is disinterested in the deepest or highest way. He achieves a divine ‘beatitude’. (20-25).
Thirdly, he urges Arjuna to know that this result can be attained by ‘knowing’ that he, Krishna, is ‘the great lord of world.’
What does Chapter 5 add to our insight into disinterested action?
This chapter is a sharpening and condensing of what has been stated in prior chapters. It continues to unpack the meaning of disinterested action. But we get a more detailed description of a physical practice that involves concentration:
Keeping outside the impressions from the outside world, centering the gaze between the eyebrows, evening out inhalation and exhalation within the nostrils, controlling the senses, mind, and spirit, totally devoted to release, with no trace left of desire, fear, or anger, the seer is release forever. (30)
What happens as a result of this practice is itself made more explicit than ever, to wit:
The man who in this very life, before he is freed from his body, is able to withstand the driving force that gathers from craving and anger, is yoked, is happy. When he finds happiness within, joy within, light within, this man of yoga becomes brahman, attains to the beatitude that is brahman. (25)
We have to always keep in mind the fact that Krishna, so far as we have encountered him, is offering a path to “release” from the bondage of karman that is open in principle even to the caste that Arjuna belongs to – the Kshatriya or warrior/kingly caste. Whereas ‘before’, only someone in the brahmin caste could ever dream of attaining the deepest insight into reality and “release”; now, on the basis of the understanding Krishna presents, there are many ways leading release (c.f. Chapter 4 lines 25-35), and so every caste possesses a means to attain release from bondage to karman.
Very naturally a question arises about how we might relate to this idea today – we who have no caste, even those of us who are Indian (we have one member of the discussion who is). How can we relate to this?
This is really to ask: how do we think about our life through this book? This is, after all, a task we take very seriously here. The books help us reflect on our own lives, and can even show us ourselves.
Whether it is Plato’s Republic or the Bhagavad-gita, thinking through a book is actually much more difficult than it might seem. One reason is that we tend to be quite unused to it. It is all too easy to detach ideas and books from life – even though these books are built for the tough stuff of life. And yet we find our experience so wrapped up in a garb of ideas – of derived opinions and habits of thinking – that we have difficulty even finding out what life is, directly. Thus the problem is in us and not so much in the books. We have to be willing to raise ourselves to their bar, to work free of the grab of ideas that covers up our experience, and to try to cast a penetrating reflective gaze on the roots of our own life, as it becomes apparent through the reading of these texts, as springboards.
This has nothing to do, by the way, with ‘critical thinking skills’ or ‘critical reading’. We are simply trying to appreciate what’s being said, its unique vision and way of thinking. How does the world look if I step inside the shoes of the thinking presented here?What must be true about the world and ourselves if what’s being said is true?
In order to do this, you have to be ready to allow your own cherished notions to be challenged. Few are ready to do this.
One thing that became apparent to us in our conversation is the phenomenon of disinterested action and equanimity. Barring all of the deepest or highest ideas Krishna presents, we know what this is, at least on the surface. We have some aquaintance with it. No one could be alive and not have an acquaintance with disinterested action, even if by an experience of the opposite.
For example, how many times have we experienced someone tell us something, or give advice, and we find ourselves fighting against it, resisting it, even though we know very well that this is probably good advice? How many times have we experienced ourselves tired, and having run out steam, and we don’t want to do it – and yet the work must get done anyway. We bite the bullet. Or we don’t and we give up. And do we not also find that with certain kinds of work, objectivity – disinterestedness – increases our ability to engage more fully with the task or the work?
To think about our own lives, then, we come to face the meaning and the worth of equanimity in thought and action, in our lives everywhere – in our choices and our commitments.
First of all, the occasion to read the Bhagavad-gita becomes an occasion to reflect on the roots of disinterestedness in our actual life and practice. But we also have a suggestion that a reader of the Bhagavad-gita may be in a fine position to ask: what would happen were one to make this very disinterestedness itself the center of a practice? (And what would it mean to ask this question – where does this question arise?) This practice would be distinguished from, say, the sort of disinterestedness that would be required for one job as distinct from another – say that of a judge or that of a teacher, or a householder – all of which would require specific knowledges, trainings and practices. Can we envision a practice of disinterestedness that unifies all of these, yet doesn’t exclude any, and replace each? Would would it look like or what would it mean for life? The Bhagavad-gita appears to be offering just such a thought and practices, in the context of Hindu society and law – but it doesn’t take very much to begin to see a direction that is available to us, under different a social, political, legal and reglious context. Following it out in thought and action is entirely another thing.
The attainment of such a practice would be certainly hard to achieve – just as the attainment of mastery in any practice is exceedingly difficult, but it takes what occurs to us in common experience and brings it to rare completion. It is that common experience we have to open up to and reflect on, what will help us unpack the unique insights of the text.
Next week: Chapter 6