How to Practice Bhakti (Gita 12.8-12)

Texts 8 through 12 of the Gita’s 12th chapter are an important section conveying a message well worth reiterating for clarity.

8: The essence of bhakti-yoga is to enwrap your heart and mind in Krishna. The best way to do this is out of heartfelt desire to attain divine love, a desire that results from deep wisdom. (rāgānugā-sādhana)

9: When such heartfelt desires are absent, one should fall back upon the strength of willpower to keep one’s heart and mind wrapped around Krishna. (vaidhi-sādhana)

10: If willpower is insufficient, one must at least engage in the physical actions of bhakti-yoga. (karma in bhakti-yoga)

11: If we cannot do this, we fall outside the realm of bhakti-yoga but can still make progress towards it by giving away all the rewards of our actions. (karma-yoga).

12: If we can’t do this, we need to get a deeper philosophy, contemplate it carefully, and keep trying.

Are You A Sanyassi?

This is an excerpt from my presentation of Bhagavad Gita, 18.7-10.

English: Sanyasi at Kathmandu

Arjuna: You mentioned three grades of renunciation. What are they?

Krishna: Out of confusion, those in darkness (tamas) give up responsibilities that should never be forsaken.

Passionate people (rajas) give up difficult and disturbing responsibilities that get in the way of their bodily comfort. This will never grant the fruit of true renunciation.

Those in clarity (sattva) carry out their responsibilities thinking, “This is my duty.” They renounce any connection to the rewards of these actions. They don’t detest unpleasant work, nor are they particularly attached to pleasant deeds. These intelligent people are free of all doubts and completely clear about renunciation.

All Paths Lead to Krishna?

Continuing in the 4th Chapter of Bhagavad Gita…

“If you really understand that my birth and my deeds are spiritual, you will come to me and not take another birth when you leave your body.  Many people did so in the past: With their hearts enrapt in knowing me, they could tolerate desire, fear, and anger; so they became liberated and attained me.” [9-10]

Arjuna will want to know, “What about someone who tries to tolerate selfish desires but without any specific interest in you personally?”

So Krishna says…

“Every human walks on my path, and I give each one the reward that they come to me for.” [11]

Arjuna will say, “But it doesn’t seem that way. Many people seem to walk a path that doesn’t include you at all.”

So Krishna says…

“People who desire material success make various sacrifices. Through the gods I quickly grant worldly success to their endeavors. From me spring the four occupations, distinguished from one another on the basis of practical qualifications. I myself work within this system, even though I am the transcendental non-doer.” [12-13]

Everyone walks Krishna’s path, and Krishna grants the rewards of everyone’s efforts. But he is not personally involved in every neighborhood through which the innumerable branches of that path meander. He can be found personally only at the very apex and cynosure of all sub-paths.

The neighborhoods through which the byways wander are maintained by Krishna’s agents, the many gods (devas). The people walking the streets here are interested in selfish objectives, and are therefore unfit to interact directly with Śrī Krishna, the entity of supra-concentrated selfless divine love. Instead they interact with his various powers with varying degrees of awareness of the divinity in them.

The people on these sidewalks are of four divisions: a few are philosophical and intellectual (brāhmaṇa), some are ambitious rulers and enforcers (kṣatriya), many others work for wealth and resources (vaiṣya), while the main bulk simply work with modest survival as their goal (śūdra).

These terms may ring an unfriendly bell, for this is indeed the seed of the deplorable, debilitating “caste system.”  The clear and all-important difference between the original system and its ruined pre-modern farce, however, is that the original is based on practical qualifications (Gītā 4.13 explicitly says: “guṇa-karma-vibhāgaśa”) while the farce is based solely on birth (“janma-vibhāgaśa”). The caste system is therefore the ball and chain of a hereditary oligarchy, while the original “Catur-varna” system is a practical and natural social blueprint.

At this point, Arjuna posed a new argument, “If the social principles of the four occupations are inferior byways on the road that leads to you, let me give them up! Let me give up my duties as a warrior and go straight to the apex of all paths by directly meditating on your transcendental nature!”

To this Krishna replied, “Not everyone on these sidewalks is materialistic! I already told you that great spiritualists also walk these paths, for the sake of inspiring others with an appropriate example.”

To add emphasis, he continued, “I myself walk the path of a warrior and a king – even though you know that I am transcendental and uninterested in material things!”

This brings the conversation back into the flow of the main topic of this section of Bhagavad Gītā; but he exciting new theme briefly introduced here – the personality of Krishna and the possibility of attaining him – will return and be fully explored in chapters Seven through Twelve.

The True Identity of Krishna

The theme of the Gītā so far is, “Put philosophy into practice,” and “Don’t give up your responsibilities, perform them with wisdom, for the sake of personal evolution.” The central ingredient in these formulae is philosophy and wisdom. So now Krishna will begin explaining how to gain knowledge and become wise.

Chapter 4 begins…

All-Attractive Krishna said: “I explained this eternal wisdom of yoga to the sun-god, who passed it on to the original human being, who passed it on to his son.  Passed on like that from one person to the next, it gradually became known to many philosopher-kings, but in the process it also became distorted, degraded and eventually forgotten.   Today I will once again explain that ancient science anew, to you.”

Arjuna would ask, “Why me?!”  So Krishna says…

“I have chosen you because I can trust you, and you trust me. You are devoted to me, and you are my friend – therefore you can certainly comprehend the ultimate secrets.” [1-3]

To deeply comprehend any topic, we must deeply open our hearts and minds to it.  This is not possible without faith and devotion.  Therefore, Krishna says that trust and dedication are the foundation of knowledge.

Arjuna asked: “You were born fairly recently.  The sun-god was born very long ago.  How am I to understand that you were his teacher?” [4]

This very practical and realistic question shows that the humble faith and devotion of a good disciple does not equate to being gullible or mindless.

All-Attractive Krishna said: “I have passed through many births, and so have you Arjuna.  I am aware of all of them, but you are not.” [5]

Arjuna would ask, “Why can you remember, while I forget?” Krishna answers…

“I only seem to have a body. The truth is that I am never ‘born’ and never ‘age.’ I am the proprietor and master of everything. My ‘body’ is my own manifestation of the power within my own self.” [6]

We forget things because our memories are accessed via electronic pathways that deteriorate, and are not really under our control or ownership, being only temporarily on loan to us from Mother Nature.  Krishna never forgets because he is not in a similar situation: His form is a manifestation of himself, by himself, in himself.  Quite unlike the rest of us, there is no difference between the divine energy within Krishna and the divine energy that manifests his specific forms.  There is no difference between his ‘body’ and ‘soul.’  This directly contradicts a prevalent Hindu misconception that the divine energy within Krishna is important and the specific form of “Krishna” is not.

Now Arjuna will wonder, “Why do you take the trouble of manifesting yourself within this forgetful world?” So Krishna says…

“I manifest myself whenever the paths of morality become overgrown by the flourishing weeds of immorality.  Time after time I manifest to repave the moral paths by protecting those who still walk upon them, and destroying those who do not.” [7-8]

Do Your Duty in Wisdom

“Being spiritually aware, renounce all implication in activity by doing your duty only for my sake.  Have no personal ambition in your deeds.  Have no sense of entitlement.  Throw off your feebleness and do your duty in this state of mind.  Fight!  People who follow steadily and surely embrace and follow this advice I have given all become free from karmic reactions.  But those who loathe and reject my advice become perfect fools in every way; ruined and thoughtless.” [30-32]

Arjuna would ask, “Why would I become ruined by not following this advice you’ve given?” So Krishna explains…

“Even a philosophical person operates according to personal habit.  How can anyone repress their own nature?” [33]

Krishna’s advice is to renounce personal attachment to ones work, not to renounce the work itself.  He says we should work for the sake of others, and for the sake of pleasing him – not for our own sake. Working in this way is renunciation and brings liberation from karma.  If we reject this advice we think that renunciation means to stop all our activities.  This is doomed to failure and ruination, because no one can stop their activities.  Repression is useless.

Arjuna would doubt, “If I am not supposed to stop sensual activities, how can I become spiritual???”  Krishna now explains that regulation, not repression, is the ideal…

“Regulate the attachment and repulsion between your senses and various sensual experiences.  Control them; don’t be controlled by them, for they block the progressive path.” [34]

Arjuna would suggest, “Let me regulate myself according to the codes of saints who dwell in the forest.  Let me cast aside these codes of the warrior.”

So Krishna will explain that everyone has different ways of regulation, but should stick to the way that is prescribed specifically for them…

“It is better to stick to your duties, even if they sometimes look difficult or faulty, then to try to follow someone else’s path, even if it sometimes seems perfect for you. It is better to endure the difficulties of one’s own path, because to walk a path meant for another is very dangerous.” [35]

The Difference between Wisdom & Ignorance

Setting the Right Example

Arjuna might ask, “If a spiritual person is self-satisfied and already evolved to purity, why would he take the trouble of doing any actions, even moral and responsible ones?” So Krishna says:

“Whatever leaders do, the masses imitate. Whatever examples they set, the world adopts.  Many kings, like Janaka, attained perfection through the yoga of duty. You should do the same and set the right example for all your citizens and admirers.  [20-21]

“Look at me. I have no emptiness to fill. I have no goal unattained. In all the three worlds I have no debt to repay. Yet still I responsibly perform all my duties with great care. Why? Because if I didn’t, all of humanity would follow suit! I would therefore destroy civilization, cause confusion and create calamity.” [22-24]

Earlier, Arjuna said that if he kills all these soldiers, who are fathers and husbands, he would ruin families, and thus cause mass social confusion and degradation. Here, Krishna says, “Maybe, but also consider this: If you set an example of abandoning your duty when it becomes unpleasant you will cause the same terrible effect.”

The Difference between Wisdom & Ignorance

“Ignorant people work hard, driven by selfish motivations. Wise people also work hard, but for the well-being of the world.  The wise do not confuse the unenlightened, but encourage them to pursue their many desires in a somewhat spiritually progressive way.” [25-26]

Arjuna would ask, “What’s the difference between the worldly deeds of a fool and the worldly deeds of the wise?” So Krishna says:

“The fool thinks, ‘I am doing this.” when in truth everything he does is simply a reaction in the causal chain of the material world.  Wise people understand the relationship between causality and action, knowing that their deeds are a complex series of causes within effects. Thus, unlike fools, they do not become personally wrapped up in their deeds. The knowledge of selfish fools is quite incomplete, and they have very little interest in changing that. Knowing this, the wise do not unnecessarily upset them.” [27-29]

Krishna says that fools act with “ahaṁkāra.” Literally, this word means “I (ahaṁ) act (kāra).” Ahaṁkāra is a foolish sense of being independently powerful. It makes us feel like we are entitled to do anything we want, and that we deserve to enjoy the fruits of our deeds. The wise do not have this misconception. They naturally feel indebted towards all the other entities contributing to their accomplishments, and are therefore disinclined to lay personal claim to the results of their endeavors. Thus the wise are not wrapped up in the web of karma, much like a swan or a lotus does not get soggy, even though it lives in the middle of the water.

Arjuna had previously argued that he should leave the battlefield to set a good example of being able to give up one’s livelihood and possessions for an ideal. But here Krishna points out that practically no one would be able to follow such an example. They would either misunderstand and imitate it, or would simply mock and ridicule it. The best example to set is of being dutiful and responsible “come hell or high water.”

Reincarnation (2:3b)

If the life-force is not destroyed by death, what happens to it?

“When the soul relinquishes its old form, it takes on a new form, just like you get new clothes to replace old ones that have worn out. [22] Life-force can never be destroyed or damaged: you can’t cut it with a blade; you can’t burn it with flame; nor can you dissolve it in water; nor erode it with the wind. [23] The unbreakable, unburnable, insoluble, un-erodible life-force pervades everything and is everlasting, immovable and eternally unaffected. [24] The self-realized describe it as non-manifest, beyond-conception, and without transformation. So, if you understand this, why should you lament? [25]”

The key here is “if you understand this.” The soul is beyond direct perception and conception. Only the self-realized can deeply understand and explain it. So what if I don’t have deep faith in their explanation, or my ability to understand their explanation? What if I am not convinced that life-force is absolutely indestructible? Krishna will address this now.

“Even if you think life is constantly being created and destroyed; even still, O hero, why would you fall into lament? [26] If living beings come to life from nothingness, then when they return to nothingness after death, what is there to regret? [27]”

If life is destroyed at death it becomes nothing. If there is thus no continuous soul, it means that living things emerge from nothingness. This means that life, when destroyed, returns to the state from which it began. In turn, this means that life would again arise. Just as it was once created from nothing, once it returns to the same situation surely it will again be created. So, in this Krishna explains a different angle on reincarnation which does not require belief in an eternal soul.

Now that Krishna has presented two versions of reincarnation – one involving an eternally distinct soul, and another not involving such a thing – Arjuna would want to know which theory Krishna prefers. So he says:

“There are many, many opinions about the soul, because the soul is amazing and very difficult to understand, either by direct perception, inference, or discussion. [29] But my friend, take it from me: eternal and indestructible life-force dwells within all bodies. Therefore you need not truly grieve for any living being. [30]”

Some twist statements like these to suggest that Krishna is undermining the principles of compassion. That is very unreasonable and lacks any broad understanding of the cultural context surrounding Krishna and Arjuna. In that context humility, compassion and service to others is the very foundation of human ideals. What Krishna is saying here is that there is nothing truly disastrous or grievous that befalls any living being – for the true living entity is highly insulated from the illusory body he or she identifies with; even though that body is subject to almost constant threat of disasters. It is, actually, the identification of the soul with the body that deserves the lamentation and compassion of a wise person.