Conversation held on Thursday May 10th 2018 at 12 EST 

“A person is as good as his faith. He is what his faith makes him.”  (Chapter 17,  line 5)

Summary of Chapters 16 and 17 

Krishna describes”two kinds in the creation of the world, divine and demonic.”  The divine leads to “release”, the demonic to bondage. At the core of the demonic are the workings of desire, anger and greed, “the gateway to hell”, the “lowest road” – the “three gates to hell.” (Chapter 16, line 20, p 135) In Chapter 17, Arjuna wants Krishna to talk about those who are full of faith, but who practice outside the “injunctions of teaching” –  that is, the prescriptions of the Vedic orthodoxy, or the brahminic path.

Opening Question

What is faith, according to the Gita?


Arjuna asked a similar question in Chapter 6 (p. 97). Here it is restated, in the context of the discussion of the gunas that has been unfolding since chapter 13.  The upshot of Krishna’s answer in chapter 17 appears to be that, while we are as good as our faith makes us, faith all by itself is not the key. As long as one stays on the level of faith, you will not obtain anything better or worse than what you already have.

For faith takes on a different form depending on the nature of a person happens to be – as articulated by one of the three gunas, sattva, rajas, tamas, or their intermixture. (Chapter 17 line 1-5) The highest askesis – offering homage to Gods, brahmins, gurus and sages, and all the good character traits that accompany them, the serenity of mind and gentleness – we might conclude on the basis of what comes before in the Gita that none of this leads to ultimate ‘release’ or liberation, but only to the best or highest limits of what the sattvic guna can offer. There is in the text a recognition that this is certainly good. However, while not stated explicitly here, but on the basis of previous chapters, we are to see that it is not the ultimate attainment. There is something yet beyond the furthest reaches of what is traditionally regarded as the highest and best.

Chapter 16 also presents a challenge. We were puzzled by the “two kinds of creation” divine and demonic – after having been presented with a encompassing vision of the whole, with Krishna at the center of it, or permeating the whole, that is intended to carry the one engaged in exclusive Bhakti (to Krishna) to the ultimate goal of realization, ‘release’ from the round of births and deaths, ‘entering into’ Krishna. So what is are Chapters 16 an 17 doing here?

A possible reading of the Gita as a whole, and in particular Ch 16 and 17, is that Krishna presents a path that transcends the tradition and the nature of things (in the Shamkyan vision), but nevertheless conserves it. In this reading, the teaching is not intended to be a corrosive to tradition, but rather something that refounds, upholds Law, and saves the world from itself, by surpassing it. It would be as if the teaching says that the Shamkyan understanding of the gunas, Prakriti and Parusa, is correct so far as it goes. There really are divine and demonic types, then – tendencies in different directions – and there is truth to the conception of the gunas.  This way of looking at the world is correct – they constitute the rules of the great game of life.

In one of our early sessions, someone brought up the analogy of a game. Pythagoras, in the ancient Greek tradition, is attributed the saying that life is like a great game – the best come as spectators. The analogy of a game is not thematic in the text, but one is tempted make use of it, so long as it is not misunderstood as settling the whole question, but rather as a way of spurring us on in an active attempt to pursue understanding that leads to a greater appreciation. A chess game resides at the heart of the Mahabharata – so reflecting on the analogy may not take us too far afield.

Krishna’s teaching seems to be this, in these terms: life is a great game that must played, and there are certain rules that the game is played by. The divine and demonic, the gunas, and dharma, the injunction of the teachings (based on the Vedic orthodoxy) are all part of the rules, writ in the nature of things, of people and of the social world.  There is no arguing with them. One has no choice but to be a player in the game: one cannot choose to stop playing, because there is no stepping outside of the game. Even attempting to stop is being a part of it. Such is life.

While we must play the game, and play it to win (Arjuna must defeat his enemies), victory in this great game, however, is not the ultimate victory. Everyone believes it to be the ultimate victory – for what could be higher than reaching the Gods, or attaining happiness that accompanies such an attainment of a blessed life? According to the Vedic teachings, the victory is obtained by sacrifices, ritual actions, homage paid to Gods, brahmins, gurus, combined with various forms of askesis – of action, mind, and speech. Krishna ‘s point seems to be that – while these things are good – there is true victory yet beyond all of this.   

Ordinarily we don’t think of life as a game. Life is far too serious, far too many things are riding on it. To play a game, means we can stop anytime, or that there can be some reference point outside the playing of the game. It is as if, up until Krishna’s teaching, there has not yet been a standpoint outside this coordinate system – even the Parusa of the Shamkyans, remains ‘inside’.

Krishna’s teaching that there is something to attain beyond the game, ‘creates’ the possibility of an awareness of what we’re doing as a game. According to this train of thought, the lack of awareness of life as a game, and the over-seriousnessness with which we live life, keeps us from playing the game to the best of our abilities. 

The rules of the game remain, including the impossibility of ceasing to pay the game.

We now go through life, doing our duties, with a sense that it is like a great game that we cannot help but play to win. What it means to be a player  – what it means to act – and win a victory has now shifted ground.  It seems the bottom line is the ability to do ones own work with greater freedom and energy, now that one is able to say what ones ‘true’ work is.


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