At a tech conference about a week ago, I ran into a former co-worker who practices yoga, has awareness that I teach yoga, and also whose family is from India. I told him I was taking an advanced yoga study course and was currently re-reading the Bhagavad Gita. He excitedly reacted by telling me that he loves the Gita as it offers guidance for any situation, whenever he opens it up to any page. I told him I’ve had the same discovery: I first read this book several years ago and while at the time I was a little overwhelmed by it, I look to it now and again, sometimes for personal inspiration, which often reveals thematic ideas for the classes I teach. More often, though, I turn to it in hopes of finding better understanding of it: I learned that this is one of those books that you simply don’t fully grasp in one reading. Here are three passages that speak to me , today.
The World becomes a slave
To its own activity, Arjuna;
If you want to be truly free,
Perform all actions as worship
– Śloka 3.9 in the Stephen Mitchell translation
Worship is kind of a difficult word – some of us are little uneasy with its religious angle, and yet on the other hand, it can be a connecting force in the context of, say, musician or sports star/team fandom: I’d have a hard time admitting that I don’t worship the Rolling Stones or even, lately, the Minnesota United MLS team! A quick dictionary lookup confirms the familiar religious aspect of it but also yields that it has much to do with love, reverence or the acknowledgement of worthiness, and doesn’t it necessarily have to do with deification.
The quote above has Krishna telling Arjuna that his concerns about the outcome of his actions are missing the point: it’s more worth his time in this life, to commit to something knowing it’s right, than to dwell for even one moment on the consequences. Why is it more worthwhile? Because it’s more focused and it’s more aware, both in the moment and also in the grander picture of collective consciousness and divinity. Arjuna’s attachment to this perceived control over the situation is also something Krishna is asking him to examine.
Yoga is indeed hard
for those who lack self-restraint:
But if you keep striving earnestly,
In the right way, you can reach it.
– Śloka 6.36
Nothing that is easy is worth doing: this saying is ubiquitous, catchy, and tends to keep proving itself, over and over. This -what I see as an apt description of tapas – is relevant to me as the third of Patanjali’s niyamas and also in my efforts to become a better yoga teacher by participating in this training. This homework requires steady attention in a variety of ways! In a wider sense, the self-restraint aspect is the even tougher part for many of us. How do you keep yourself from falling into a rut? Ruts are so comfortable. Especially ruts like these: in which we don’t engage with our elected officials, we don’t leave a crappy job, or we don’t curb intake of a food or beverage has negligible nutritional value.
I am the ritual and the worship,
The medicine and the mantra,
The butter burnt in the fire,
And I am the flames that consume it.
– Śloka 9.16
Krishna is here explaining that the divine is everywhere, and in everything there is divinity. Opportunities to worship are everywhere: not just on Sundays, not just while appreciating breathtaking views from mountaintops, and not just at an altar or with a candle. He’s asking Arjuna (and Gita readers) to consider being far more mindful in every action taken, because everything and everything we do is connected and divine. And so, everything we do with intention is worship.
So: the Gita is difficult for me, still. It’s strangely redundant while also offering a variety of ways to get at “action,” “duty,” and “worship.” It has started to help me better understand the concept of duty, by framing it as right action, rather than something prescribed by some set of rules published somewhere… but then again, that’s exactly what it is when you consider the Sutras. The different may be the love aspect: looking to your heart and your intuition to determine what is the right and just thing to do, and then taking that action with full awareness.