Perform work in this world, Arjuna, as a man established within himself – without selfish attachments, and alike in success and defeat. For yoga is perfect evenness of mind. -Krishna
– Krishna was an earhtly prince who did many practical things to help the people of his time, but was always established in Self-Realization through yoga meditation.
In periods of seated meditation, there are states of great peace and great turmoil that pass through the mind in oscillating intervals. As with the personal, so the collective: as human civilization evolves, periods of relative peace are often followed by chaotic times that require protest and dedicated work on behalf of the oppressed. As current events unfold, it appears we are entering a period marked by increasing ignorance, injustice, and even impending catastrophe: nationalist politics threaten to deprive the rights of minorities; terrorism strikes fear into the hearts of decent people worldwide; climate change even threatens to destroy the world as we know it.
Any rational person understands that mere prayers and a “spiritual” perspective are not enough. When people are hungry, they must be fed. When laws are unjust, they must be protested. When leaders concoct schemes to defraud the innocent, we must fight nonviolently to thwart their plans. In short, all sorts of practical work must be done to improve the world, and every person has their own particular work to do.
To realize God is not to deny the obvious suffering in the world, but to have a different perspective on it. While we do our work, we can simultaneously understand that the physical world, with all its seeming madness, is not the only Reality. The sages and mystics of many religions tell us that our life is like a dream, and that whatever happens in the dream ultimately has no effect on the Dreamer, our True Nature. Everything we see in the physical world of matter is like the waves on the ocean. The waves are sometimes peaceful, and sometimes raging in terrifying storms. Yet whatever happens on the surface, the depths of the Sea remain at peace. A sage is a person who works on the surface for the welfare of the world, but is simultaneously in touch with the depths. Perhaps a better way to say it is that a sage is someone who sees that the waves and the depths are, in reality, one and the same.
Millions of good-hearted people around the world who are disturbed by current events could benefit from a more spiritualized perspective. They see the chaotic unfolding of current events, and live in a state of fear and constant dissatisfaction. They do not realize that we can work to better the world, and can protest injustice with passion, yet simultaneously have liberating insight into the Indestructibility of our own God-Consciousness. They do not understand that it is possible to have peace in any situation, peace born not of utopian historical circumstances, but of actual spiritual realization.
In this post I’ll share a few thoughts on Krishna’s perspective in the Bhagavad Gita which I feel is increasingly relevant to this topic. I’ve shared about the historical context of the Gita in other posts, so in this one I’ll simply comment on a passage or two without explaining much about the source of the text. I will also insert an “interfaith corollary” because it is important for me to show that religions are often teaching the same truth in a different spiritual language.
Having Peace in a Chaotic World
The Bhagavad Gita provides an excellent example of how to have spiritual peace in turbulent times by balancing a life of meditation with a life of outward activity. In the Bhagavad Gita, the Avatar Krishna lived in an age of societal collapse. As the text begins, the warrior Arjuna complains to Krishna that a disturbingly pointless war, started by an evil family who is intoxicated by the quest for power, is threatening to destroy everything he knows and loves.
On the day of battle, he laments and even contemplates taking his own life. Krishna’s response to him is as relevant today as it was then. As he stands between the two armies on the day of the war, Krishna tells Arjuna not to grieve, and to focus on the Higher Reality, or Brahman. At one point, he famously utters,
The wise grieve neither for the living nor for the dead. There has never been a time when you and I and the kings gathered here have not existed, nor will there be a time when we will cease to exist. As the same person inhabits the body through childhood, youth, and old age, so too at the time of death he attains another body. The wise are not deluded by these changes.
Do not grieve?! If you really let this sink in, it is a seemingly outrageous statement. For should we not grieve for those who are tragically killed in war? Should we not grieve when minorities are deprived of justice? In my view, Krishna is not implying that natural human grief is inappropriate, but merely expressing the viewpoint of an enlightened person. Enlightened beings like Krishna have compassion for all people who suffer, but their compassion is balanced by wisdom that perceives non-duality and the fundamental perfection of each moment. In effect, he is saying, “The wise (those who understand that Brahman alone exists and that this world is a dream) understand that everyone shares the same Divine Nature and that, consequently, no one can ever actually die. In the Divine-Dream-Drama there must be good and evil for the show to continue, but both are merely variations of God’s Eternal Energy. Therefore, do not lament!”
Arjuna’s grief is understandable and even arguably honorable. But he is looking at the world from the perspective of a limited human being, and falsely identifying with his mortal body. Krishna invites him to wake up to the inner reality that our True Nature is Spirit, without beginning or end. He later tells Arjuna that although he must fight in the battle, his True Self cannot die: “Water cannot wet it, nor sword pierce It, nor can fire burn It,” he later proclaims. The war is simply allegory of our life; we must all fight in the battle for justice, yet also must fight to rise above duality and ignorance through God-Realization.
The great master Jesus taught a similar message in his own time. Jesus lived in a violent and ignorant age, and taught people that to please God they must help the poor and pursue justice. Ultimately, he was tortured to death by Rome (a fate shared by thousands of other Jews of that time), a ghastly fate that many people in his time falsely interpreted as proof of his own spiritual impotence. In fact, the exact opposite was the case: by maintaining God-Consciousness even in the most extreme possible case of injustice and pain, Jesus proved that seekers throughout all the ages can fully realize God even in the most turbulent historical circumstances.
Furthermore, he showed that an enlightened perspective includes even people who are instruments of evil. When he uttered, “Forgive them Father, they do not know what they are doing,” he was seeing, through non-duality, that the Father Himself was manifesting as the very people who were killing him. Krishna similarly saw that even the evil kings who started the unjust war were themselves part of Brahman, and therefore had compassion for them too. This all-unifying love born of spiritual wisdom is what alone will save the human race from destroying itself.
Jesus, like Krishna, realized that he was not a human being serving God, but God Himself pretending to be a human being. When Jesus proclaimed, after raising Lazarus from the dead, “I am the resurrection and the life,” he was declaring allegorically that although his human dream-body would eventually be killed, his own True Nature (or Christ-Consciousness) was one with God and therefore indestructible. Krishna, from the perspective of his deathless Krishna-Consciousness, similarly declares in the Gita, “I am the basis of the Infinite,” a truth not special to these two sages, and one that any human being can realize through their own spiritual efforts.
– Jesus, like Krishna, did all sorts of work to practically help people, but was always established in Divine Peace through his inner realization of God.
How Can this be practically Applied?
How can these abstruse ideas actually be applied to life in the 21st century? Firstly, we all have an external battle to fight, and we all should find some work to do that is beneficial to other people. Arjuna was a warrior, so God asked him to be a solider, but we all have a unique divine destiny to fulfill in any given incarnation. For some, like Ghandi and Martin Luther King Jr., their destiny involves protesting the political system. But if everyone spent all their time protesting, society would break down.
Some people are here to build houses for other people. Some are born to be doctors. Some people fix other people’s cars so they can get to work. Some are teachers that help prepare the new generation for the challenges they will face in the future. Some will play an active role on the world stage, and others will be hidden and unknown. Yet nothing is small in the eyes of God; any work done with the thought, “may this benefit all beings” is an offering of priceless worth to the Divine which sees everyone as a manifestation of Itself.
Whatever our particular work is, the goal of life, according to the Gita, is to realize God. So secondly, we should integrate spiritual practices like mediation into our daily routine, as the Gita repeatedly recommends. Luckily, in our age, spiritual practice can be fairly easily integrated into the average person’s life like never before. I am just a normal person with a demanding job, but I try to start everyday with 30-60 minutes of silent meditation on my breathing. Then, at work, while I do my tasks, I hold a question in my mind (similar to the Zen Koan) along the lines of, “What is God right now?” Alas, I find that He is never separate from me, even in the most seemingly inconsequential moments! In this way, my seemingly average life is transformed into the life of God, and becomes a unique field of realization no different than the Buddha’s, Christ’s, or Krishna’s.
All of this, however, is merely theoretical unless we do the work of meditation, and prioritize it above other tantalizing distractions which abound in this age of information. Without meditation, it is impossible for the average person to develop genuine God-Perception. Many people despair of this fact, and make excuses. Yet how many hours have we spent watching movies and shows, and how hypocritically do many of us complain, “I have no time to seek God!”
This second aspect of the Gita’s message (the necessity of meditation practice) is what is desperately needed in this day and age. So many people have good hearts, but have not developed spiritual insight through meditation practice. They act from the delusion that they are the body, and they do not know how to quiet their mind in meditation. In reality, we fight a war on two fronts: in the outer world, we should work to help others and protest injustice. Yet we must also work to realize God-Consciousness through spiritual practice. If we work only from delusion, we will eventually get depleted and have no peace of mind. And how can we truly help anyone if our own mind is not at peace?
Lastly, many devotees like Arjuna dramatically bemoan the state of the world, and wish for some idealized utopia where they can experience Divine Realization. Yet Krishna reminds us that when we set our hearts on God, we will realize Him in any age or circumstance. The seed that eventually flowers into God-Consciousness is not a religion or a ritual, but a human heart that desires God-Realization more than anything else. The whole world can be filled with existent theological texts, but the only important prayer is, “Reveal Thyself to me as You are!” When this seed of Divine longing is watered with daily meditation, it eventually sprouts into a Joy that no one can take from you, and a Peace that has no end.
May you forget all these words and dive into the Ocean of meditation to realize that, as Rumi wrote, “whenever you bow to God, you bow to a mirror.” And may God forgive me for attempting to describe Him with human language, a project comparable to fitting the endless galaxies of stars into a child’s backpack.
Praise be to God forever, the sole doer of all action. To Him be the glory forever! With love,
- Lessons from the Bhagavad Gita: Introduction
- Lessons from the Gita 3: God Realization – The End of Religion
- Lessons from the Gita 2 – Three Dimensions of Renunciation
- Working from the State of Rest
- A Few Thoughts on Spiritual Peace
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