Friday, December 28, 2012

The Bhagavad Gita Interpreted - Part 18

Arjuna said: 

—Tell me, Krishna, the nature of abjuring action and renunciation, and the difference between them. 

Krishna said: 

—To abandon action that is driven by desire, this is abjuring action. To abandon the fruit of every act, this is renunciation. 

—Because all action is driven by desire, the one who relinquishes action abandons all action. This is relinquishment. Yet sacrifice, offering, and self-discipline must not be abandoned. The one who renounces the fruit of all action does not abjure all action, but instead abandons the fruit of all action. This is renunciation. 

—Hear from Me the nature of renunciation. One must perform sacrifice, offering, and self-discipline. They are your duty; they are the road to purification. This is my decree. Practice sacrifice, offering, and self-discipline, but without expectation of reward and without attachment to their fruits. It is error to abjure such action. 

—He descends into the darkness of ignorance and negligence if he abjures these actions out of misunderstanding. He is drawn to the fire of restless desire if he abjures these actions to avoid hardship and displeasure. 

—But he ascends to the light of goodness if he practices renunciation without expectation of reward, without attachment, untroubled by doubt, without thought of pleasure, displeasure, ease or difficulty. He practices renunciation because it is his duty and accords to My law. He cannot abjure all action. His very existence requires action; but he renounces the fruits of action. 

—The fruit of action may be pleasing or displeasing or both. He who does not renounce the fruits of action, is bound by these forms. He who renounces the fruits of action, he is free of their bondage forever. 

—To be free forever, understand action by reflecting on the five causes of all action—the body, the illusion of self, perception of sense and mind, the means and method of action, and divine decree. Whatever action he undertakes, whether of body, of speech, of mind, whether right or wrong, these are the five causes of action. 

—If he sees himself as the single cause of action, he is deluded and in error. If his love of self does not mislead him, if he understands, he kills but cannot kill, nor is he bound to destruction even if he destroys all the worlds. 

—Within the seed of action, there is knowledge, the knower, and the known. When reaped, there is the one who acts, the acting, and the action itself. These take three forms in three threads of light, fire, and darkness. 

—The one who looks upon My creation and sees the unity of it, his knowledge ascends to the light of goodness. The one who perceives only the diversity of My creation, his knowledge is consumed in the fire of restless desire. The one who sees only a single form of My creation, to the neglect and exclusion of all other forms, his knowledge descends into the darkness of ignorance and negligence. 

—Action undertaken without expectation of reward, because it is a duty, untainted by love or hatred, ascends to the light of goodness. Action praticed for selfish gain, which is a hated burden, or to satisfy some appetite is consumed in the fire of restless desire. Action performed in confusion, without thought of consequence, which destroys or causes harm, descends into the darkness of ignorance and negligence. 

—The one who acts ascends to the light of goodness when he is free from self-interest and immodesty, when he is strong and enterprising, when he is detached from victory and defeat. The one who acts burns in the fire of restless desire when his appetites enslave him, when he is covetous and violent, when his passions overcome him. The one who acts descends into the darkness of ignorance and negligence when he lacks discipline, when he is thoughtless and indolent, when he is procrastinating, when he is filled with malice, self-doubt, or self-pity. 

—Hear also the threefold nature of intelligence and constancy. Intelligence shines light of goodness when understanding when to act and when to refrain from action, how to know a duty and what is not, what causes fear and what does not, what is bondage and what is freedom from bondage. Intelligence burns in the fire of restless desire when misunderstanding what is lawful and what is not, what is a duty and what is not. Intelligence descends into the darkness of ignorance and negligence when choosing what is wrong for what is right, and espousing what is false for what is true. 

—Constancy shines in the light of goodness when it sustains the mind, the breath, and the senses in devotion and contemplation. But the constancy consumed in the fire of restless desire is tainted by appetite and expectation of reward. And the constancy descending into the darkness of ignorance and negligence, is mindless indolence, fear, self-pity, despondence, and drunkenness. 

—Likewise, happiness takes three forms. In the light of goodness, his cup of sorrows transforms into ambrosial waters. In the fire or restless desire, his cup of delight becomes a burning poison. And in the darkness of ignorance and negligence, his clouded cup is sleep, indolence, and forgetful distraction. 

—Nowhere in the heavens or on earth will you find a creature not bound by this light, this fire, this darkness. Whether a scholar, or a warrior, a tradesman or a servant, his actions are governed by these three threads. 

—Peace and restraint, austerity and purity, patient forgiveness and honesty, insight, wisdom, and faithfulness are the natural works of the scholar. Heroism and vigor, character and cleverness, fearlessness, generosity and noble exertion are the natural works of the warrior. Husbandry, herding, farming, and trade are the natural works of the commoner; and service, the natural work of the servant. 

—In devotion, finding joy in his work, he attains perfection. Through the effort he exerts, he pays homage to the One Whose work is the cosmos. When his work and his worship are performed with the same steadiness and devotion, they are indistinguishable one from the other. Performing his duty imperfectly is superior to performing another’s, however well carried out. Steadfast in his own duty, refusing to abandon it even when his work is imperfect, he bears no blame and is not in error, for all work is touched by its flaws, as fire is by its smoke. If he renounces the fruit of his action, if he rejects the lures of appetite and the darkness of negligence, his renunciation is perfect and, even in the midst of action, action does not bind him. 

—In this perfection, he reaches the Most High, which is the best end of all knowledge, and is the highest knowledge. His heart made pure, he is self restrained. He renounces sense and all objects of sense. He seeks seclusion. He eats sparingly,is disciplined in voice, in body, and in mind. He is devoted to meditation and cherishes detachment. He is unfettered by selfishness and unseduced by power, by lust, by anger, by possession, or by greed. He is serene. He reaches the Most High. 

—Here he recognizes Me as I am. He knows My greatness. Here, in this perfect knowledge, he becomes one with Me. Even conducting his life, performing his work, I am his shelter and, through My grace, he comes to Me, to his eternal home. 

—Sacrifice every word, every thought to Me. Surrender every act, and every fruit of every act to Me. Offer your love and devotion to Me and I will dispel your sorrow, solve your difficulties, and remove your afflictions. But if you are selfish, if you turn aside from this counsel, you will be lost and destroyed. If you are stubborn and refuse to fight, you will still succumb to your own nature. You will fight, even if now you say you will not. The Lord of all is within all hearts, and no creature can resist His decree or thwart His will. Those who stand aloof still bend to His command. Enter My shelter without doubt or hesitation. Find peace in Him, even as you fight, and come to your eternal home, which is eternal and untroubled peace. 

—Meditate upon these words, which I have revealed to you. Then act as you wish to act. But now I will speak of My greatest mystery, because I love you. In your adoration, sacrifice all duty, abandon all things and instead come to Me, loving Me alone, above and beyond all that is, or was, or ever will be. Come to Me untroubled. In My shelter, no evil can reach you. 

—Do not reveal My mystery to those who make no offering, who are not devoted to Me, who ignore My teachings or disbelieve in Me. But reveal My truth and My way to those who seek Me. Then you are My devoted friend, and without doubt you will come to Me. Reveal My truth and My way. There is no greater service to Me than this, and no other will be more dear to Me. 

—Remember all that I have said, and commit My words to memory. Make this your sacrifice of knowledge. And the one who believes and trusts in My words will escape the bondage of life and death and will attain the worlds of joy and righteousness. 

—Have you heard what I say? Do you understand what I have revealed? Or do you remain in the darkness of your delusion? 

Arjuna said: 

—You have dispelled the darkness. My delusion is destroyed. Through Your grace, I have recovered my senses and You have banished my doubts. I will act as You have bidden me to act. 

And, at once, Arjuna took up his bow and his arrows. He lifted the conch shell to his mouth and sounded the signal to battle. 

Saturday, December 22, 2012


In Vraj, while Krishna was still young, each year the people sacrificed to Indra, the king of gods. For the festival, the gopis set aside their household duties to decorate their homes in bright colors, to place garlands on friends, husbands, sons, and brothers. The men likewise put aside their work except to prepare sacrifices to Indra, to vow to Indra, to recite his praises and stories, calling upon his favor, propitiating him for his blessings, for they considered him the best of the gods. 

Krishna asked his father, Nanda, “To whom are these vows and sacrifices offered? To whom do these praises and prayers belong?” 

His father said, “To Indra.” 

Krishna asked, “Is this our tradition, or is there deliberate thought that this celebration brings benefit from another than God, the Most High?” 

Nanda answered, “This is our tradition, because the people consider Indra the chief of gods and seek his favor and his protection.” 

Krishna said, “If Indra is the chief of celestials, he isn't the creator, the sustainer, nor the destroyer of the universe. To the Most High alone, Creator, Sustainer, Destroyer, is sacrifice owed or ever deserved. Is Indra self-subsisting? Is he all-knowing? Is he all-powerful?” 

Nanda said, “We've made this sacrifice every year, and our people in turn have enjoyed good fortune.” 

Krishna said, “What does Indra have to do with good fortune? How will Indra favor you, or bless you, curse you or chastise you when your actions alone confer true favor and blessing, true cursing or chastisement? If you're afraid, will Indra be your shelter? Indra is powerful among creatures, but he's still but a creature, neither more nor less a creation than the least of the gopas. Don't seek shelter in one who himself is in need of shelter.” 

When Nanda told the people what Krishna had said, they abandoned their sacrifice to Indra, and instead celebrated and sacrificed to God, the Most High. Krishna directed that they pray in the direction of Mount Govardhan. The women prepared food and drink, and the men lit sacrificial fires and chanted from scriptures. Krishna said, “Celebrate in this fashion, and God, the Most High, will be pleased with you, for He is the best of shelters.” 

In the days following the sacrifice and celebration, dark clouds overshadowed Vraj and a terrible storm rained hail upon the village, lit the skies with lightening, and shook the earth with thunder. The land flooded, and the air become cold, tormenting the people of Vraj and their herds. The gopis and the gopas came to Krishna and said, “We've angered Indra by abandoning our sacrifice to him, and he has come to destroy us. This storm is his weapon, and he'll make sacrifice of us for our disobedience.” 

Krishna said, “Did you think that you would say, ‘We believe,’ and not be put to test? Accept Me alone as your shelter and I will relieve you of this torment.” 

The people said, “We believe and come to You for shelter.” 

Krishna then lifted Mount Govardhan above the earth. Amazed at Krishna’s miracle, the people and their herds took shelter beneath its shadow, protected from cold and storm. At last, when the rain ceased, and floods ebbed, and the sun shone and the land was again fair and green, they came from beneath the mountain, and Krishna set it down again. Krishna said to them, “Though you've sacrificed to gods, and enjoyed good fortune, remember that whatever you've received came from My hand alone.”

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Prince of the Yadavas

After the defeat of the Kauravas in eighteen days of warfare on the field of Kurukshetra, the ancient kingdom of the Yadavas destroyed itself in civil war. The princes, descended from Yadu, turned each against the other and neither Krishna nor Balarama intervened. Sorrowfully, Balarama yielded up his spirit and Krishna went into forest exile, leaving his kingdom utterly ruined.

One day, while sleeping in the forest, a hunter mistook him for a deer and struck Krishna with an arrow. When realizing what he'd done, the hunter begged Krishna’s forgiveness. Krishna calmed him, as his life ebbed, and said, “This crime doesn’t fall on you. My mortal life has reached its term, and this is as it should be. Here, as in the forests of Vrindivana, as in Radha’s embrace, I’ve known many wonders. Free your mind of this, and of the question you bear.”

The hunter said, “O Krishna, how has this happened, to die, a wounded prince mistaken for an animal? Were you unable to spare your kingdom, to live and die a prince of Yadavas? Or, when Gandhari cursed you for your destruction of her son’s kingdom, was that curse too powerful to overcome, the result of your action?”

Krishna answered, “The dynasty in which I was born, the kingdom in which I was prince, has no more substance now than before. Those nearest to me imagined that physical proximity to me was alone sufficient. Even the gopis, those simple blessed girls, knew better. If those nearest to me yield to their corrupt inclinations, why wonder that their corruption consumes them? Seeking shelter in me, they might have been spared. But between these two, their terrible power and the shelter of my love, they relied on the first and disposed of the second.

“Imagine if Radha had abandoned me for another. What would her end have been? Or if Arjuna had chosen my armies rather than preferring me? What would have become of him? I give all creatures a choice. I reveal which choice is the best of choices. But it is always your choice to make or to refuse.”

With these words, Krishna yielded up his mortal life.

Draupadi's Honor

King Duryodhana, owing to his greed and unquenchable envy, despised his cousins, the Pandavas, and wished to deprive them of that half of the kingdom which was their right. Because he feared open conflict with the Pandavas, he devised a strategy to take from Yudishtira, the eldest of the Pandavas, and his four brothers Bhima, Arjuna, Nakula, and Sahadeva, all that they possessed. Duryodhana invited the Pandavas to his palace, to play at dice, and to stake such valuables as they wished.

The Pandavas accepted this invitation. But Krishna, knowing that Duryodhana planned to cheat at this game, said to Duryodhana’s advisors and elders, “Let the game proceed as Duryodhana directs it. Don't intervene, nor even speak a word of censure, whatever may occur.”

When Yudishtira and his brothers arrived, Duryodhana welcomed them with false flattery, offering them food and drink. Duryodhana, surrounded by his court, lay the game out before the Pandavas, described the rules with which all were aware, and asked Yudishtira what he would stake.

During each game in turn, Yudishtira staked his possessions—pearls and diamonds, livestock and servants, and at last the entirety of his kingdom. And in each turn, Duryodhana cheated and won. Exasperated, Yudishtira then staked his brothers one by one. And one by one, Duryodhana won them. Finally, Yudishitra staked his own freedom, and lost this as well.

Mocking, Duryodhana said, “Cousin, have you nothing left to stake? Have I won all that you possessed? I think you still possess something precious. We'll play one more round. Wager Draupadi, your wife. Surely, now your luck will change.”

Yudishtira agreed, and staked Draupadi. But Duryodhana cheated again, and the wager was lost. Duryodhana called to his brother Dushasana, saying, “Go fetch the beautiful Draupadi. Bring her here before us.”

Dushasana found Draupadi in her chambers. He said, “Come with me. Your husband has staked his kingdom, and his brothers, even himself, and lost all. At last he staked your freedom, and lost that as well. Come with me, and I'll take you to your new master, and you'll enter my brother’s service.”

Draupadi refused, saying, “I won’t go. Duryodhana has cheated, and I won’t go. Surely, Yudishtira cannot wager me when he already lost himself. Once he lost his own freedom, he cannot wager mine.”

Dushasana ignored these protests and grasped Draupadi by her long black hair. He dragged her before Duryodhana, in full view of the Pandavas and Duryodhana’s court.

Duryodhana said, “We’ve won you fairly, Draupadi. Since now you’re my servant, you must strip as all my servants must.”

Draupadi refused, saying, “I won’t. You've cheated. Where is your honor? Surely, Yudishtira cannot wager me when he already lost himself. Once he lost his own freedom, he cannot wager mine.”

Duryodhana said, “You ask after my honor? Whore, you’ve married five men at once. You have no freedom when your five husbands have lost their own.” Duryodhana then called to his brother Dushasana, “Strip this harlot and don’t stop until she kneels naked before us. If she shares herself with five men, why not with fifty?”

As Dushasana stepped forward in obedience, Draupadi dropped to her knees in despair, her face in her hands. And as Dushasana took hold of her robes, she called out, “O Krishna. O prince of Yadus, beloved of the daughters of Vraj, mischievous child, loving friend, dearest of Radha in the forests of Vrindavana. O remover of sin, destroyer of affliction, shelter of your lovers, spare me this shame. Draw me out of these black waters, out of the sea of this crime against me. O Krishna, Most High, Creator of the universe, spare me from their taunts and their mocking laughter. O Krishna, you know the truth of these words, and the justice of my prayer.”

Krishna heard Draupadi’s fervent prayer. Unseen by all, he stood in Duryodhana’s hall and, as quickly as Dushasana removed her robes, Krishna replaced them. Again and again Dushasana attempted to strip Draupadi, but at no point was she disrobed, even as he held in his arms yard after yard of saffron-colored cloth.

As Draupadi continued her prayer, lifting her hands to the heavens, her face streaked with grateful tears, Krishna said, “O chaste one. Never think I am far from your distress. If the wicked oppress you, I have made abasement the garment of glory, and afflication the adornment of my temple. If evil befalls you, know that those who commit evil are fully revealed to themselves, stripped of their honor. Though they struggle to expose you, they expose only themselves. Know this ancient truth—those moved by greed and envy come to the gates of Hell, where they testify against themselves.”

Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Song of Radha

You linger in the delusion of  I am,
Because you know neither what you are,
Nor what you are not.
You are the eternal Self, not body, not mind.
You are only the inviolable Self,
Blazing like the sun, where night never falls.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Problem of Action and Its Renunciation

Readers often assume, when they first pick up the Bhagavad Gita, that Krishna preaches the renunciation of action. Yet, in the second chapter of the Gita, Krishna urges Arjuna to act, and to act violently. Krishna denounces Arjuna’s unwillingness to fight, and demands that he pick up his bow and his arrows, do battle with the armies and allies of his cousins, and destroy them. This, in fact, is the reason the conversation revealed in the Gita takes place.

Since desire taints most, if not all, deliberate action, how can we renounce action without ceasing all action? Arjuna raises this question at several points (in Chapter 3, Chapter 5, and Chapter 18). Many readers are similarly perplexed, and ask, much as Arjuna does, how one can renounce the outcome of action without renouncing the action itself. But this difficulty is only seeming. However Arjuna poses the question, Krishna’s answer is consistent. By renouncing the fruits or outcome of action, the desire that taints the action, and enslaves the one who acts, is disarmed.

According to Krishna, action is purified by renunciation of the fruit of action. In this sense, it ceases to be “action” at all, if action is defined as any activity deliberately undertaken by desire for its outcome. If we accept this definition of action, then, when the leaves of a tree rustle in the wind, there is no action, at least as Krishna describes it in the Gita. After all, we are not concerned with the intent of the leaves or of the wind and expect that there is none. That "something happens" therefore is not equivalent to "action" in the text of the Gita.

Some forms of deliberate action (that is, activity driven by intent) is praiseworthy provided it is selfless. The action Krishna prescribes includes performing sacrifice, making offerings, and mastering desire. If this is Krishna's meaning, then the Gita itself is a form of sacrifice and self-discipline, and the battle Krishna and Arjuna discuss is primarily the figurative battle within Arjuna's heart.

Throughout the Gita, the reader is confronted with frequent references to renunciation. The meaning of renunciation is easily misunderstood unless one looks closely at the context in which the word appears. In English, renouncing something is synonymous with abjuring, relinquishing, surrendering, forsaking, or rejecting it. The difference in meaning between these words is subtle or simply nonexistent. Their difference in the text of the Gita is unclear except in context. The words themselves are neutral, and may mean different things, depending on what is actually being “renounced.” This again creates difficulty for the reader trying to understand the form of renunciation Krishna encourages in contrast to the form of renunciation he explicitly discourages.

For the sake of clarity, I have used the word “renounce” in the text only in the positive sense of renunciation of the fruit of action, which is a form of sacrifice to God. This renunciation is praiseworthy and Krishna enjoins its practice. In contrast, I use the words abjure, abandon, and forsake only where the cessation of action itself is the practice in question—a practice that Krishna denounces as the cheat it is. After all, as Krishna says, in reference both to His human and divine Self, “I Myself am never without action.”

Monday, October 15, 2012

The Choice of Krishna

As they gathered their armies and sought allies to their opposing causes, both Arjuna and Duryodhana hurried to Krishna to secure his allegiance and the many thousands of warriors he commanded.

Krishna was asleep when Duryodhana arrived. He entered first, sitting near Krishna’s head. When Arjuna entered, he took his place and sat at Krishna’s feet.

Krishna awoke, and his eyes fell first on his friend, Arjuna. He said, “Welcome to you Arjuna, and to you, Duryodhana. Why have come to see me?”

Laughing, Duryodhana said, “Krishna, you know that war is coming. Stand with me and my brothers. If you are tied by bonds of blood and marriage to Arjuna, so too are you bound to me. Since I have come first, and was the first to enter your presence, by tradition and justice you should ally yourself with the first who came and who supplicated, if indeed you abide by justice!”

Krishna answered, saying, “Duryodhana, though you entered first, when I awoke I saw Arjuna first. So abiding in justice, I will help you both, and will give you a choice. By tradition, in choosing between two gifts, the youngest receives the first choice. Arjuna will choose first.” Krishna turned to Arjuna and said, “To you I offer my army, warriors as strong as I am, veterans of battle, armed and ready to obey. On the field of battle they will live and die by your command. Or, instead, you may have me, alone, unarmed. I will not fight. Choose what is best, knowing that of these two choices I will give Duryodhana whichever choice you reject.”

Without hesitation, Arjuna said, “I choose you.”

In delight, Duryodhana won the countless warriors of Krishna’s kingdom. In delight, Duryodhana knew that Krishna would not fight. He said in himself, “I cannot lose this war.”

When Duryodhana left, Krishna said, “Why, Arjuna, did you choose me, when I offered my armies.”

Arjuna said, “By our choices, you have chosen, knowing how it will end. Whatever you offer, if I cannot choose both, I choose you alone. For you alone are the best of choices.”

Krishna said, “And if you die on the field of Kurukshetra, and if Duryodhana prevails, what will you have gained through my friendship? And if you are victorious, how will my friendship alone have availed you?”

Arjuna said, “If my brothers are victorious, we will have attained our kingdom both now and in eternity. In defeat, we have only lost a moment, for our eternal kingdom, through your friendship, is preserved. By our choices, we have already defeated Duryodhana, whatever the outcome of the battle. The true battle was here, in this room, in your presence. If in battle my brothers and I fall, Duryodhana attains only a moment of mastery over a kingdom which is less than a fist of dirt beside your eternal friendship. I choose to be the hawk on the arm of the huntsman, not a broken-winged lark in a snare.”

Krishna said, “All that you say is true. And this moment was the very reason I created you.”

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Washed in the Waters of Kawthar

When Rama, the King of Ayodhya, ascended to paradise, he performed his ablutions by the calm waters of Kawthar, washing away all wordly cares. As he arose, he beheld Krishna braiding Radha's hair in the shade of the Tree of Life. Rama greeted him, and said,

"O Krishna, who will you have for your enemies?" 

Krishna said, "To Duryodhana, I give him the aspect of envy and willful blindness, for he is the child of Gandhari. 

"To Karna, I give him the aspect of blazing fire, burning his heart without end, for he is the child of Surya." 

Rama said, "And who will have for your friends?" 

Krishna said, "To Yudishtira, I give him the perfection of righteous duty, for he is the child of Dharma. 

"To Bhima, I give him the strength of the wind, for he is the child of Vayu. 

"To Arjuna, I give him the mastery of commanding restraint, for he is the child of Indra. 

"To Nakula and Sahadeva, I give them the beauty of patient reflection, for they are the children of the Ashvins." 

Rama said, "O Krishna, and what will you give Draupadi, the wife of these five friends?" 

Krishna said, "To Draupadi, I give the gift of chastity each morning, as she washes in her bath. And I give her the service and devotion of Dharma, of Vayu, of Indra, of the Ashvins. And to these five husbands, I give the beauty and counsel of this fairest of wives." 

And in this moment, with the sound of these words still upon his lips, Krishna was born from Devaki's womb, the youngest son of Vasudeva, the manifestation of the Most High.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Three Krishnas

Who is Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita? 

He is Arjuna’s friend, his unarmed ally and charioteer; Balarama’s younger brother, the son of Vasudeva, cousin of the Pandavas, and a prince of the Yadavas. He is a great man, but still a man. 

He is something more; he reveals himself as the manifestation in human form of the supreme deity, Vishnu, and a messenger of God. 

And he is something extraordinary; he speaks of himself not merely as God’s emissary, but as God Himself. 

It is a riddle to ask the distinction of the arrow, the hand on the bow, the eye of the archer. It is a riddle to ask the source of the page, the ink, the hand on the pen, the mind of the author; and a riddle to ask the difference between the mirror, the sun in its reflection, and the sun it reflects. 

The counsel of a friend, a manifestation of God, and God Himself—how are these three fundamentally different Krishnas reconciled to one another? One of several major branches of Hinduism rooted in Vedic Brahmanism, Vaishnavism views Krishna as an avatar of Vishnu, or as Vishnu himself, or as a deity himself higher than Vishnu. 

Vaishnavites are typically monotheists. The many devas of Hindu mythology are considered either aspects of God Supreme, or are celestial creatures subordinate to God. The Vaishnavas also consider the Bhagavad Gita a key scripture, a revealed text. And within the context of the Bhagavad Gita, they assume that Krishna is all that he says he is. If taken literally, Krishna’s multiple self-revelations are impossible to reconcile. Figuratively, however, all three Krishnas may be the same. 

In Vaishnavism, as an avatar of Vishnu, Krishna is but one of several manifestations of God, which before Krishna include Matsya, Kurma, Varaha, Narsimha, Vamana, Parashurama, and Rama, who is the hero of that other great Indian epic, the Ramayana. According to some scholars, Buddhism itself, with its tales of past and promises of future Buddhas, may have influenced the concept of avatars—the idea that Vishnu appears in human form from time to time. Here, belief in literal reincarnation is irrelevant. Vishnu appears in human form by choice, not because of the bonds of action and desire. Karma does not attach to Vishnu, nor to any incarnation of Vishnu. Krishna explains in the Gita: “From age to age I manifest myself in the worlds of My creation. I arise among men when they have lost their way….” This explanation shares much in common with Buddhism, but not just with Buddhism. The appearance and reappearance of messengers of God is common to both Indo-Aryan and Semitic religious traditions, and to Zoroastrianism, which spans both. The Jews acknowledge Abraham and Moses, and the Christians add Jesus, and the Muslims further add Muhammad to their list of prophets who receive revelation from God. They are heroes, saviors, and redeemers, they are prophets to their people, messengers to the world, each speaking with God’s authority. The Quran makes explicit mention of past messengers. “God has sent messengers before you, some of them He has mentioned to you and some He did not mention to you.” (Quran 40:78). On this basis alone, Krishna’s station as a messenger of God can be asserted given that the appearance and reappearance of prophets and messengers is nearly a universal doctrine. 

However, in view of manifestation and incarnation, within Vaishnavism, there are divisions between those who view Krishna as a creation of Vishnu, and as subordinate to Vishnu, and those who view Krishna as God Himself. These differences are reflected above, and cannot easily be rectified if one views these hierarchical arrangements as literal. On a figurative level, however, these two views of Krishna are relatively easy to reconcile, and the Bhagavad Gita itself implies that reconciliation. It is the difference of speaking for God or as God. 

There is a way out of the labyrinth of these false choices: whether Krishna speaks for God or as God is a distinction without true difference. He does both. In the Quran, for example, God speaks in the first person. Muhammad does not claim to be God, but this revelation is the voice of God and as Muhammad reveals it, he acts as God with His complete authority. 

Whether one looks at the tip of the arrow, or the bow, or the hand on the bow, one is closest to understanding who sees the eye of the archer. Whether one looks at the page, or the ink, or the pen, or the hand on the pen, one is closest to understanding who sees the mind of the author. If the pen should write, “I am the author,” who would deny this evident truth? Whether in the heavens or in the mirror, there is the sun. 

Krishna is a man. He is a messenger of God. And when he speaks for God, he is God.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Faith in His Alchemy

"Rest awhile in His shade; you cannot shade yourself. Forget your glory; what glory outshines His? You have kindled a lamp, but despise the sun. You drink of His well, you who deny all rain, all rivers, all seas.

"You've professed to know things you don't know. You've declared belief though doubt has found its way within. You've concealed your ignorance and denied your doubts, thinking that His forbearing mercy might transform ignorance to knowledge, and doubt to certitude."

I said, "I am a lead coin, but have faith in His alchemy."

Saturday, July 21, 2012

The Kaba of Your Heart

Caring for my soul, a stranger said, "Surely you don't believe the things that you say."

I said, "Surely you don't deny the truth of them. I can recite scripture as readily as you can. So instead, let's detach ourselves from our expectations of God, because we've made our expectations a partner with God, and this is idolatry. Cast the idols of your expectations from the Kaba of your heart and then recite, as Gabriel call out to Ahmad, there is no power nor might but God. In this there is belief and truth that eclipses all that you and I claim to know and believe."

Monday, July 9, 2012

The Bhagavad Gita Interpreted - Part 17

Arjuna said,

—O Krishna, what is the state of those who have faith but are not mindful of Your teaching? Of those three threads, are they governed by the light of goodness, or the fire of restless desire, or the darkness of ignorance and negligence?

Krishna said,

—Of light, fire, darkness—faith takes no other form than these three threads, without exception. And a man is whatever his faith is. In light, he sacrifices to the heavens. In fire, he sacrifices to the earth. In darkness, he sacrifices to his superstition. And those who seek to punish themselves, and Myself within, and who undergo terrible austerities to impress others, there is no sacrifice at all. Their strength is wasted, and desire enslaves them.

—You will know which faith they practice in what they consume, in how they make sacrifice. You will know them in their self-discipline and in their offerings. Hear My words that you may know them without doubt.

—Those governed by the light of goodness consume only what is mild, has flavor and substance, and is fulfilling. What they consume is health and vigor, joy and long life.

—Those governed by the fire of restless desire consume what is sour, bitter, burns the tongue. What they consume is pain, misery, and illess.

—Those governed by the darkness of ignorance and negligence consume what is burned, flavorless, and rotten. What they consume is worthless.

—Those disposed to the light of goodness sacrifice without expectation of reward, without attachment to the fruit of sacrifice, but because sacrifice is their duty and accords to My Law. Their sacrifice is pure.

—Those disposed to the fire of restless desire sacrifice only to satisfy their appetites and pride. Their sacrifice is tainted by attachment.

—Those disposed to the darkness of ignorance and negligence sacrifice improperly, without understanding, without obedience or faithfulness. Their sacrifice is barren.

—Self-discipline takes three forms, found in three places—in the body, in speech, and in the mind. In the body, it is obeisance to the heavens and to the wise; it is fidelity, restraint, and nonviolence. In speech, it is sincerity and good will; it is truthfulness, appealing and constructive; it is the recitation of learning. In the mind, it is composure and mildness; it is measured and reserved; it is purity.

—Those drawn to the light of goodness practice these three forms of self-discipline faithfully, without expectation of reward.

—Those drawn to the fire of restless desire practice these three forms to show off. The honor and reputation they enjoy turn to dust and come no more.

—Those drawn to the darkness of ignorance and negligence practice these three forms unsoundly, without understanding, or to injure another.

—Those radiant in the light of goodness bestow offerings to those in need, to those deserving at the right time, in the right place.

—Those burning in the fire of restless desire dispense offerings in repayment or to acquire something better in return.

—Those astray in the darkness of ignorance and negligence make offerings coldly and contemptuously to those who neither need nor deserve at the wrong time, in the wrong place.

—The Most High, the One, the Truth are each a name of God, the Creator and Sustainer of the Wise, the Scriptures, and the Sacrifice. Invoking the Most High, engage in sacrifice, offering, and self-discipline. Invoking the One, engage in these three practices to be free of attachment and reward. Invoking the Truth, engage in these three practices, or any praiseworthy act. But if sacrifice is made, offering bestowed, or self-discipline practiced faithlessly, they are barren and wasted, having neither substance nor meaning now or ever after.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The Bhagavad Gita Interpreted - Part 16

Krishna said: 

—Courage, inner virtue, constancy in My way, charity, temperance, sacrifice, contemplation of scripture, austerity, sincerity, peacefulness, veracity, lack of animosity, relinquishment, tranquility, fidelity, compassion, lack of avarice, courteousness, humility, perseverance, vitality, forgiveness, fortitude, purity, amity, and lack of pride. These are the divine qualities of man. The opposite of these are man's demonic qualities. 

—The divine qualities lead a man along My way, and he will find release from earthly bondage. But the demonic qualities ensnare man in life and in death, and he is enslaved. Arjuna, do not despair. You will find release, for your qualities are divine. 

—In the worlds of My creation, you will find some with divine qualities, and others with demonic. I have spoken at length of the divine; now let me describe the demonic. 

—Men with demonic qualities do not know when to act, nor when to refrain from action. Within them you will find impurity, bad conduct, and falsehood. 

—"The world is a lie," they say, "and God is a lie. There is only desire." 

—"There is no creation," they say, "nor any Creator. Lust alone produces birth." 

—They cling to these thoughts and this lack of perception. They are strangers to Me. Cruel and depraved, they pollute the world. In lying and lust and arrogance, they wander deluded, immersed in false doctrines. They are enemies, worshipping only the satisfaction of desires that can never be satisfied. Anxious and craving, they are bound to the world with as many chains as they have desires. 

—"I have fulfilled this wish," they say. "Tomorrow I will fulfill another." 

—"I have amassed great wealth," they say. "Tomorrow I will be wealthier still." 

—"I have slain my enemy," they say. "Tomorrow I will slay the rest." 

—"I am master; I am lord," they say. "I have fortune and power and happiness." 

—"I am wealthy and noble," they say. "None is my equal." 

—“I will offer sacrifice,” they say, "and donations, celebrating my success." 

—This they say, deluded and ignorant, enslaved by desire and driven by objects of desire. They imagine themselves kings on a royal road, but their way leads them only to hell. Esteeming themselves, absorbed in their pursuit of pleasures, they make sacrifices and offerings improperly, only to honor themselves. 

—Their strength is weakness; their pride, debasement; their pleasures, transient; their anger, self-destruction. They hate Me in themselves and in others. 

—Vile and wicked, they waste their lives on this ruinous road, dying again and again, reborn only to earthly desire. They wear their chains and fetters like a robe of honor. Foul and strutting, they follow this ruinous road through the gates of tormenting desire, suffocating anger, and insatiable greed. 

—Turn away from these three gates of hell. He who accepts My way never comes to these gates. He who rejects My way finds no rest and that ruinous road is his eternal home. For him, happiness and success are elusive and transient. Let My words guide you. In My teachings, be firm and unwavering, and you will know what to do, and what to refrain from doing. Knowing this, you know which road to take.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

The Context of the Gita

The text of the Mahabharata, in which the Bhagavad Gita, the "Divine Song," is found, describes the Gita as the only scripture needed to understand God's message to mankind. There is a rich mythology surrounding the writing of the Mahabharata. Vyasa is considered its author, and Ganesha, sacrificing a tusk in the task, is Vyasa's amanuensis, taking every word down faithfully. 

Yet the Bhagavad Gita stands apart from this mythology. While Vyasa is the putative author, the text of the Mahabharata itself describes the episode of the Bhagavad Gita as something special—a full and exact recounting of Krishna's words to Arjuna, while they speak between the contending armies. The Mahabharata itself testifies that, in the Bhagavad Gita, it is Vishnu Himself speaking to the listener, to the reader. It can be argued that the rest of the Mahabharata can be dispensed with, and the message of the Gita still dazzles.

In this sense, the Gita's extraction from the Mahabharata is wholly appropriate. After all, while Krishna speaks and acts in other episodes of the Mahabharata, and while exegetical interpretation of those words and actions is not objectionable, the Gita remains the prism through which those words and actions must be understood, even if sometimes they seem to contradict the spirit of the Gita. In essence, the Bhagavad Gita remains the best and most complete distillation of what Krishna reveals to Arjuna, and what Krishna asks mankind to believe.

In reference to the Gita, the text of the Mahabharata is explicit:

"There is no need for any other scripture….The Gita includes all the scriptures; Hari [Krishna] comprises all gods; the Ganga contains all the places of pilgrimage; and Manu's text holds the wisdom of all the Vedas….And the nectar of the entire Mahabharata was in Krishna's song to afflicted Arjuna, extracted and offered face to face."

There is something uncomfortably convenient about believing that one does not need to refer to the Mahabharata to understand the Gita. Krishna's actions in the Mahabharata are sometimes at odds with the words he reveals in the Bhagavad Gita. Simply ignoring the rest of the Mahabharata is an easy, though not elegant, way to paper over any seeming contradictions. In the Temple of Hanuman I address those contradictions, so I will not address them here. Nevertheless, making no reference to the Mahabharata to students unfamiliar with the epic seems like a dodge.

Finally, the argument is made that the Gita was originally an independent work, an independent Upanishad inserted into the Mahabharata later. Yet the context in which the dialogue between Krishna and Arjuna takes place remains relevant. What better time to ask questions of God than when standing between two armies at the decisive moment, when you are preparing to put those you have loved and esteemed to the sword? "Is this my duty?" Arjuna asks. Understood either literally or figuratively, the Bhagavad Gita is the most precious fruit from the tree of this great epic. If not itself the original product of the Mahabharata, this fruit is not served by cutting down the tree.

Ignoring the Mahabharata might also be justified by the Mahabharata's oppressive length. It is many times over the length of the Iliad and the Odyssey together. Its characters, and the basic outline of the story are unfamiliar to Western readers, and a commitment to reading it is hampered by the difficulty of finding complete translations of the entire work, and the sheer time required to read it.

Abridgments are useful and available, and can provide a quick introduction to the story. I think this, at least, is appropriate before reading the Gita itself, to place the work again in its context. Though many would undoubtedly consider any summary of the work to be inadequate, there is no harm acquiring some immediate familiarity with this, the longest Sanskrit epic. Knowing that I am unequal to the task of attempting an interpretation of the Mahabharata from start to finish. I would encourage the reader to find an abridgment, or at least a scholarly overview.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

The Bhagavad Gita Interpreted - Part 15

Krishna said:

—Arjuna, you have heard of the Tree of Eternity, its trunk nested in the heavens, its branches here among us. Its leaves are the hymns of praise, of sacrifice, and of ritual. The one who knows this Tree, knows the first of scriptures.

—Into all the worlds, its branches spread, each bud an object of desire. Nourished by the three dispositions, its roots attach to action.

—Who has seen this Tree from root to branch? Who has seen its expanse and the breadth of its canopy? Its end, its beginning, its foundation no living eye perceives.

—Hew this Tree with the axe of detachment. Escape the tangle of its roots and branches. Say, "I take refuge in Him. I seek solace in Him alone, the Most High, the One supreme."

—Come to the place from whence none return. Cut away the fruit of every action. Step out from the shadow of desire and attachment. Come to the One from Whom none depart.

—Give up selfish desire, and reject the opposites of hatred and love, of pain and pleasure, of sorrow and delight. Fix your eye on the inviolable Self and take comfort beneath the canopy of My majesty, within the precincts of My mercy. Here there is no sun, no moon, no fire. My eternal home shines with the light of My glory.

—With but a spark of Myself, I kindle the light of all lamps. Without its light, what use has a lamp? Who cannot see the fire that burns there? Coming into this world, a man has five senses and mind, and he experiences the objects of sense. Departing from this world, by Creation's perfume he is scented. Yet the one who is lost to himself does not understand his own coming, his going, or his experience of the three threads of nature. While the wise man sees him dwelling within himself, the lost, even by seeking, cannot find him.

—I am the light of creation. Without Me, the sun and moon go dark, and the fire has no glow. I sustain creation. I am the food and drink of every creature. I am their digestion, their inhalation, their exhalation. I reside within every heart, and from Me, your every thought, your memories, your reasonings are possible. I reside in scripture, and am the key to scripture, and its voice. I complete every scripture.

—Within creation there is impermanence and permanence. The impermanent include the lives of every creature. The permanent is the inviolable Self. But there is a third transcending both impermanence and permanence. This is the Most High, the One Supreme, and He alone holds together these three worlds.

—I transcend time and eternity and am higher even than the inviolable Self. In this world and in scripture I am acknowledged as the Most High by those who are are free from delusion, who have come to Me as I have bidden them come.

—Blameless prince, I have revealed My wisdom, the best end of all understanding. Knowing with My knowledge, a man becomes wise, and the purpose of his life is achieved.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The Bhagavad Gita Intepreted - Part 14

Krishna said:

—Listen, Arjuna, while I reveal to you My wisdom, the best end of all understanding. Those who know it, depart with the taste of its perfection on their lips. Knowing with My knowledge, they are free from the bondage of life and death.

—In the shelter of My creation, I am mother and father. I have conceived all beings. In the fabric of creation are three threads intertwined: the light of joy, the fire of restless desire, and the darkness of ignorance. All creatures are born, caught in the web of these threads.

—These three qualities bind all creatures, but sometimes one prevails over the others.

—The light of joy binds men to happiness; in goodness and right action they reside. When a man shines with the light of joyous knowledge, we know what quality prevails. In light, he ascends to the heavens of light.

—The fire of restless desire binds men to passion; always in action, they are never satisfied. When a man lusts for possession, the fire of restless desire scorches him. In fire, he is reborn to the anguish of desire.

—The darkness of ignorance clouds vision and binds men to negligence; seeing nothing, they make no offering. When a man resides in negligence, thoughtless delusion envelops him in darkness. In darkness, he descends to the torment of ignorance.

—Yet these three threads are themselves bound to the phenomenal world. They are contingent on the senses even to be perceived. Those who know My way, they see that I am not found among these qualities. They are unencumbered by these qualities and pass beyond all that is, or was, or ever will be. They ascend to Me alone. They are free from the bondage of life and death.

Arjuna said:

—O Lord, how is he known; how does he act; how does he transcend the light of joy, the fire of restless desire, and the darkness of ignorance?

Krishna said:

—He is untroubled, neither seeking nor avoiding these qualities. Perceiving light, perceiving fire, perceiving darkness when they come to him, he sees them as they are. He knows they are bound to nature and cannot reach the inviolable Self. He transcends them when he is firm, unmoved, unperturbed, and disinterested. He does not distinguish between them and is equitable to pleasure and displeasure, praise and censure, honor and disgrace, friend and enemy. He sacrifices the fruit of all actions, undertaking nothing to achieve these qualities. Aspiring only to Me, he transcends these ephemeral qualities. Not straying from My way, he ascends to Me. For I am the changeless shelter of Eternity, the wellspring of Law, and the light of Perfect Bliss, blazing like the sun where night never falls.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The Grove

The one who takes her expectations as her standard of Truth, is deprived of apprehending Truth. Expectation is a snare, the greater the expectation, the longer the noose. In the grove which was her prison, Sita despaired of rescue. Hanuman said, "Rama will defy all earthly expectations of him, all your feeble notions of him. Be firm. In your unjustified sorrow, don't hang yourself by your own hair; cut it short."

Sunday, April 15, 2012

The Wealth of Hatim Tai

A king of the Hejaz was proud of his liberality, but jealous of the good reputation of others. Hearing stories of the legendary generosity of Hatim Tai, the king became envious. Hatim Tai lived in the wilderness, but possessed a seemingly inexhaustible supply of riches and treasures. From this store, he bestowed gifts without hesitation upon friend and stranger alike.

The king called to his court the prince, his son. He said to him, “I'm sending you on an errand. Go into the wilderness and seek Hatim Tai. When you find him, ask of him something precious. Ask for his head. If he offers it, bring it to me severed from his body. And this will be the end of his generosity. If he refuses, then he isn't so generous as men say.”

The prince obeyed his father and set out. He wandered in deserts and wilderness, asking of every man he met where he might find Hatim Tai. He came at last to Hatim Tai’s threshold. A young servant  welcomed him graciously and brought him before his master, the great Hatim Tai. Hesitating, the prince asked Hatim Tai for food and drink. At once, a great feast was set out before him. The prince asked then for half the riches and treasures in Hatim Tai's possession. At once, these treasures, in chests and bags and cases were brought to him, more than he could carry, more than he could imagine. But Hatim Tai said, "I think there's something more you seek from me, that there's something else you desire, and that these requests don't satisfy that desire."

The prince hesitated, but at last revealed, "What I seek isn't for myself, but for my father. He asks for your head."

Hatim Tai said nothing, but left the room and did not return. The prince considered this a refusal, and was secretly relieved. He left the treasures behind, mounted his horse and took the road to his father's kingdom. However, he came only a day's journey when Hatim Tai's servant caught up with him, having ridden swiftly after him.

The servant was weeping, saying nothing, and handed to the prince a small chest of treasure. The servant departed as swiftly as he came. The prince wondered at the chest, until he saw it dripping blood.

Cursing the king, his father, the prince abandoned his station, his family, all his wealth, and traded his princely robes for rags, gave away his horse to a dervish, and wandered on foot alone in the wilderness.

Wherever he went, where people saw his condition, they gave him coins, and food, and drink, but always he refused these offerings, or gave them to others in need. The king died, and the vizier sent soldiers to find his son, the heir. When they discovered him in this state, they brought him before the vizier who said, "You're wasted and filthy, a beggar without possession. Claim your inheritance and be restored to wealth and comfort." But the prince refused, saying, "You think I'm poor, but no kingdom can increase my wealth. Though I've renounced riches, and repented sincerely, still I keep my head."

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Ibrahim ibn Adham

Here is a small offering for my absence:

A sufi, having journeyed without provision, came to a mosque where he thought to sleep a little while untroubled. But the townsfolk saw him and accused him of impiety and sloth. The worshippers clutched him by his soiled cloak and dragged him by the feet outside, and his head struck each step in turn and his blood flowed freely.

Lying in the road before the mosque, he was covered in dust and caked in blood. The townsfolk shouted curses at him for befouling their place of worship. When asked by them about his miserable state, he answered, “By your curses, I am relieved of curse. And I have known no greater blessing that to incarnadine His road and the steps to His presence with my life’s blood.”

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Some Updates

The Island of Amodhai has been uploaded with some minor corrections to the text. The Trial of Paris is now complete, but still in edit. Both complete books are available here.