Easwaran’s Talks & Writings

The Key to the Art of Living

By Eknath Easwaran

(This excerpt is from Like a Thousand Suns, volume 2 of  The Bhagavad Gita for Daily Living Easwaran's three-volume commentary on the Bhagavad Gita. Easwaran is commenting on chapter 7, verse 2 of the Bhagavad Gita. Sri Krishna, the Lord, is speaking to Prince Arjuna.)

I will give you both jnana and vijnana – spiritual wisdom and the capacity to apply it to daily living. When both these are realized, there is nothing more you need to know. (7:2)

Once, while the Compassionate Buddha was camping in a shimshapa grove with his disciples, one of the more philosophical among them was asking him all kinds of abstract questions – whether or not there is a God, whether or not there is an immortal soul, whether the universe had a beginning and will have an end. In reply, the Buddha is said to have picked a few leaves from a shimshapa tree and asked, “Are there more leaves in my hand or on this tree?"

Everybody agreed, “Of course, there are many more leaves on the tree than the Blessed One has in his hand."

“Similarly,” the Buddha replied, “there is much more in my consciousness than you can see, much more than you can grasp, much more than you can use. What I give you is only what you need to free yourself from the conditioning in life that is the cause of all your sorrow."

That is the sense in which Sri Krishna tells us here, “I will give you jnana and vijnana; that is all you need to know.” It is not that there is not more to know; it is that these two together are the key to the art of living.

According to Shankara, an eighth-century Indian mystic and one of the greatest spiritual authorities of any age, jnana is spiritual knowledge and vijnana is spiritual experience. Spiritual knowledge is not intellectual knowledge; it is direct experiential knowledge of the unity of life. As Sri Ramakrishna, the great saint of nineteenth-century Bengal, puts it, it is knowing for oneself that God dwells in all beings, which is the discovery we make in the climax of meditation called samadhi. But what is vijnana, “spiritual experience"? Sri Ramakrishna goes on to tell us in his inimitable way, “He who has only heard of milk is ignorant. He who has seen milk has jnana. But he who has drunk milk and been strengthened by it has attained vijnana.”

This interpretation can be made even more practical to meet the needs of the world today. In the light of my own small experience, I would say that jnana is spiritual wisdom and vijnana is the capacity to apply this wisdom in daily living. Jnana is knowledge of timeless truths; vijnana is putting this knowledge into action – to solve problems, to deepen personal relationships, and to show those around us how to wake up from this dream of separateness in which virtually everyone is caught today. Vijnana, in other words, is “inside” knowledge. Once you have realized the unity of life and begin to live it out, you begin to see into the heart of life. It’s very much like being taken into a family; you’re on such close terms with the head of the house that everything is opened to you. Here you are on such intimate terms with the Source of life that all you have to do is knock at the door of a problem and it will open, so that you know both its cause and its cure.

There is nothing mysterious about this capacity; it is simply a matter of wisdom and will. When, after many years of meditation, you attain the realization that all life is one, you will find it impossible to think or act like a separate creature again. You will not be able to exploit anyone, or discriminate against anyone, or do anything that is at the expense of life; and you will never forget that the welfare of each of us can only be found in the welfare of all. But to solve the grave problems that are making life impossible today – violence in the streets, environmental pollution, loneliness, the breakdown of the family and of personal relationships – it is not enough just to live in constant awareness of this unity. For that you need vijnana, the skillful capacity to apply this awareness of unity to heal the deep divisions in people’s hearts and minds and to bring them together in trust and harmony.

You don’t get this skill overnight; it comes with the overwhelming desire to help. When, after many years, you have succeeded in freeing yourself from all the things that people suffer from, you will not be able to sit by and let others go on suffering; you will have to come up with solutions that are of immediate value to everyone. Not only that, it must all be very skillfully and attractively done. You can’t just say, “Here, now, stop competing with each other; don’t you know that husband and wife are one?” You have to offer a more desirable alternative, and package it attractively in your own life so that people can look at you and say, “Oh, yes, now I see; that’s what it means for two people to complete each other. I want to be like that too.” With some of these problems this may take years. But you won’t take no for an answer; you just will not rest until all these problems are solved. Your desire, your concentration, is so intense that it can penetrate into the heart of the matter. You will be able to see below symptoms to the underlying cause and come up with a creative solution.

In other words, this is a skill that flows naturally from the intimate realization that all of us are one. Once this realization comes, with your eyes you will still see people around you as different – different names, different faces, different hair styles, different ways of thinking and acting – but in your heart you will never forget for an instant that there is no real separation between you and others at all. When you talk to your friend Jessica, you will be Jessica. You will be able to put yourself in her shoes and see the world through her eyes, which means that you will understand her completely. You will be incapable of judging her, because you will see how any problems she has have evolved. But you will be able to help her, because you will not be caught in her perspective; you will have the vantage point of your own experience from which to extend a hand.

Once you reach this state, there is no possibility of misunderstanding in personal relationships. I’m not saying there will not be differences of opinion, there will be. But in my experience it is not differences of opinion that disrupt relationships; it is lack of faith, lack of love. When you have jnana, you will trust Jessica completely. You will know that she is incapable of doing anything that can harm you, and that her deepest need is to love and be loved. And when you have vijnana, you will find all kinds of little ways to express your trust and draw your friend Jessica to you, no matter how different your views might be on inflation or French novels or the causes of the First World War. That is why I said that vijnana is “inside” knowledge. You don’t stand around outside a problem the way you do when you meet someone at church on Sunday; you get right inside, into the kitchen, and see it as it is at home.

This doesn’t apply just to your own relationships; it applies to every human problem. If you have vijnana, wherever you go you will be a peacemaker – as Jesus puts it, “a child of God.” Wherever there are differences of opinion, no matter how serious, you will be able to slip behind the lines on each side and see things through their eyes, probably better than they can see for themselves. From your perspective you will see the problems, but you will also see the underlying unity in which the welfare of both sides is included. Both sides can come to see the other’s point of view, and when this happens, though it may take a lot of work, it is only a matter of time before you can find a point of view that is common to all.

I can give you a small example of this from my own experience. It’s not something that happened after I had become established in meditation, either; it took place at the very beginning of my teaching career in India, when relations between Hindus and Muslims were particularly strained. Even in the college where I was teaching, where tempers were not yet so inflamed, Hindu and Muslim students had begun to isolate themselves in groups on opposite sides of the room and refuse to speak to each other. All this used to hurt me deeply. As I said, I still had a long way to go in my meditation, but from my association with my Grandmother I already had some awareness of the unity of life, and it grieved me deeply to think that our campus might become divided into warring camps.

Now, it happened that one of my closest friends on the faculty was a Muslim, and a devout Muslim at that. He and I had gone to graduate school together, where we were inseparable, and it had never occurred to us that there was anything in our two backgrounds that put us in opposite camps.

After we graduated we went separate ways, and we lost track of each other. Then, after a few years, I was posted to a beautiful campus in central India. On the long train journey from Kerala I was wondering where I was going to stay, because suitable rooms are not readily available in small college towns in India. But when I got down from the tonga, the horse-drawn carriage, my Muslim friend just walked up from nowhere with a big grin on his face. “Come on,” he said. “You’re coming home with me. What are you looking so dumbfounded about?” That was the kind of bond we had; it wasn’t something that could be broken by communal quarrels that had nothing to do with religion at all.

So when Hindu-Muslim antagonism began to disrupt our classrooms, instead of criticizing one community or the other, my friend and I quietly went to share the home of a Muslim aristocrat who had gone on pilgrimage to Mecca. It wasn’t a deliberate effort; it just came about naturally, without planning, out of the depth of our concern. At first our students couldn’t believe that we could live peacefully under the same roof. People kept telling us, “It’s an extremely dangerous situation; both of you will be hurt.” Neither of us were very brave. But we put our heads together and said, “If we are going to get hurt, we might as well get hurt together.”

What was important was that we hadn’t done this as some political gesture. Everyone knew we were the very best of friends, and yet both very deeply in love with the heritage of our different faiths. So though people criticized us sharply, they were watching us very closely to see how we held up. And gradually, as our friendship only deepened, our students began to feel a little ashamed. One by one, some of our bolder students began sitting next to each other again. Then they began to talk to each other, and finally they were laughing and working together just as they had before. It opened our eyes to how just two little people trying to practice the unity of life can change the direction of a whole community. That is vijnana, and there is no art more essential to daily living today.