Easwaran’s Talks & Writings

Living in Wisdom: The Bhagavad Gita for Daily Living

By Eknath Easwaran

ARJUNA: 54. Tell me of those who live always in wisdom, ever aware of the Self, O Krishna; how do they talk, how sit, how move about?

This question of Arjuna’s introduces the glorious eighteen stanzas which, as Gandhi points out, hold the key to the interpretation of the entire Bhagavad Gita. Gandhi, a devoted student of the Gita, was especially drawn to these last eighteen verses of the second chapter. I have seen him meditating on them with such intense concentration that as I watched, I could see the great stanzas coming to life in a human being. When Gandhi said that the Gita describes the war going on within, scholars in many countries, including India, would not take him seriously. In reply, Gandhi only asked them to look at these verses and see what reference there is to the conquest of international enemies, the conquest of enemies outside. In every verse of this passage we have clear proof that the battle referred to is within, between the forces of selfishness and the forces of selflessness, between the ferocious pull of the senses and the serene tranquility of spiritual wisdom. I strongly recommend these verses to be memorized for use in meditation because they gradually can bring about the transformation of our consciousness. The secret of meditation is that we become what we meditate on, and when every day we use these verses with the utmost concentration we are capable of, gradually we will become what they describe as the God-conscious person. If I might refer to my own small spiritual endeavor, before taking to meditation I was subject, as most normal people are, to all kinds of cravings and foibles that naturally led me to make many mistakes. But due to the spiritual awareness emanating from these verses, I have been able to surmount these obstacles. It is because of this small personal experience that I recommend all of you use these verses in your meditation.

What Sri Krishna is really trying to do in the first part of the Gita is to rouse Arjuna’s interest, to prepare him for receiving instruction, and to make him ask this practical question. Without this preparation it is difficult to communicate spiritual wisdom. When I give my introductory talk on meditation, sooner or later there will be someone in the audience to say, “How do you do it?” In the early days I had to restrain myself from saying “Hurray!” because this is what I had been waiting for. Arjuna now begins to ask the same kind of question, which Sri Krishna has been waiting impatiently to hear.

Here Arjuna calls the Lord by a very charming name: Keshava, ‘he who has beautiful, infinite hair.’ In the Upanishads there is a marvelous simile that describes the entire cosmos as hair growing out of the Lord’s head. In order to understand the beauty of this name Keshava, you really have to go to India, and to Kerala more than any other state, where women have the longest, richest, blackest hair. Early morning when they go to the temple pool to have their bath, it is a gorgeous sight to see their hair cascading down their backs, sometimes reaching even to the knees. Long black hair has always been considered a great mark of beauty, and when Arjuna uses this loving term, Sri Krishna must be blushing under his deep blue complexion.

Arjuna asks, Sthitaprajnasya: “Tell me about the person who is firmly established in himself.” Ka bhasha: “What kind of person is he?” Samadhisthasya: “Tell me a few words about his samadhi; how does he live in union with you?”

Sri Krishna wants Arjuna to be more explicit, and probably the look in the Lord’s eyes makes Arjuna feel he is expected to be more precise. Arjuna gets the point and says, Sthitadhih kim prabhasheta kim asita vrajeta kim: “How does such a person talk? How does he sit? How does he walk, move about, and conduct himself in the everyday vicissitudes of life?” It is a marvelous question, in which Arjuna by implication is telling the Lord not to recommend the study of the scriptures, not to give him papers published on the subject, not to impart some spiritual gossip, but to give clear signs as to how he can recognize the illumined man or woman who lives in complete union with the Lord.

SRI KRISHNA: 55. They live in wisdom who see themselves in all and all in them, whose love for the Lord of Love has consumed every selfish desire and sense craving tormenting the heart.

They are established within themselves in whose hearts every selfish desire has been completely eliminated. The word the Lord uses here is kama, which I translate as ‘selfish desire.’ Though the dictionary gives other meanings as well, the significance of the word is selfishness, especially as it expresses itself in cravings on the sensory level. The Lord is very particular about his words in this verse: kaman sarvan, ‘all selfish desire.’ Not a trace of any selfish desire, which agitates all human minds, may remain. Sri Krishna looks compassionately at Arjuna, whose eyes reveal his thought: “Does it mean all?” This is why I say that Arjuna represents you and me perfectly; we, too, feel that Sri Krishna must mean just the majority of desires, that a few must be allowed.

There is no human being, unless he or she belongs to the category of Jesus, the Buddha, Sri Ramakrishna, or Sri Ramana Maharshi, who does not have some taint of selfishness in their consciousness. Sri Ramana Maharshi will say that selfishness is I-ness. He also says that the I-thought is the mind. When in the Christian tradition St. Paul says, “Not I, not I, but Christ liveth in me,” he is also showing us that if we could tirelessly endeavor to expunge the I-concept from our consciousness, purification would be complete. In Sanskrit the word used for separateness and selfishness is ahamkara: aham means ‘I’; kara means ‘maker.’ This ‘I-maker’ shows itself in many, many ways in daily conduct and behavior, particularly in our intimate personal relationships.

Anything we can do to subordinate our profit, our pleasure, and our prestige to the welfare of all those around us naturally results in the reduction of I-consciousness. When we keep imposing our self-will on, for example, our partner – very often unwittingly and under the impression that we are defending our rights – to that extent we actually are adding to our separateness, building up a higher wall between our partner and ourself. In the early days of almost all married relationships there is this tendency to stand on our rights, and to get so agitated when our rights are violated that we naturally build a higher and higher wall under the impression that we are demolishing it. Right from the early days of marriage, or of any relationship, we must try to forget about rights and remember duties if the relationship is to last.

One of my favorite poets when I was professor of English was Milton, who has given the world a spiritual masterpiece in Paradise Lost. There is a moving sonnet by Milton on his blindness which concludes with the lines:

God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts. Who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is kingly: thousands at his bidding speed,
And post o’er land and ocean without rest;
They also serve who only stand and wait.

I interpret this “standing and waiting” as inexhaustible patience, as bearing with people, particularly in close personal relationships. When everything around us is swirling, when we feel our feet are slipping, we get terrified. We fear that we are going to be swept away, and even with our very good intentions, we are not sure whether unkind words may not come out of our mouth, whether unkind actions may not come from our body. It is when everything is uncertain like this, when the whirlpool is going round and round, that we must be able to draw upon enormous patience to stay firm and steadfast. This is the significance of the word sthitaprajna, ‘established in wisdom.’ On every occasion where there is resentment, resistance, and hostility around us, let us not use it as an opportunity for making ourselves more uncertain, more unstable, and more insecure by taking it out on other people and retaliating. Let us instead forgive and help them to overcome their problems, which means we will also be helping to eliminate our separateness.

The capacity to yield is not defeatism; it is not weakness. It is immense strength whereby you are able to get over your demands, your claims, the shrill voice of your ego, to contribute even to those who oppose you, ridicule you, attack you. Without forgiveness, I do not think anyone can enjoy life. In order to enjoy life completely, it is not a bank balance or material possessions that is required, but an immense capacity to forgive those who injure you and are hostile to you. St. Francis of Assisi puts it perfectly when he says that those who have not learned to forgive have lost the greatest source of joy in life.

We can recognize those who are united with the Lord of Love, ever present in us all, because they have been enabled by the grace of the Lord to come out of the forest of selfish desires in which most of us seem to be wandering, unable to find our way. Life on the egoistic level, on the physical level, is called samsara, which is from the root sri, ‘to move.’ Samsara is that which is moving all the time, the ceaseless flux of life in which we cannot stand anywhere. Everywhere is movement; everywhere is change and flux. This is the cycle of birth and death, whether we believe in reincarnation or only in evolution.

In one of the great scriptural stories of Hinduism, the ferocity of the senses is brought out with terrible humor. A man who is very body-conscious, as we all are, was being pursued by a tiger. The man, panic-stricken, ran as fast as he could until he reached the brink of a precipice. There, just when he thought “the tiger was about to pounce upon him, he saw a mango tree below him and leaped down onto it, finding shelter on one of the middle branches. The tiger was standing on top of the precipice looking down with its tongue hanging out. The man breathed a sigh of great relief and started to climb down the trunk of the tree. He looked down and there was another tiger looking up at him. This is samsara. In this most precarious position – death above, death below – the man sees a mango. “Ha!” he says. “Just what I’ve been looking for.” At that moment tigers, life, death, samsara, all disappear, just for the few moments’ satisfaction of a sense craving. It is a terrible story because this is what sense craving can do to us. At the particular moment when there is a fierce sensory craving, even though we are being submerged under it, it is good to remember that the nature of the mind, the nature of desire, is to change. If we can hold out and resist the temptation, we are free.

This excerpt is from The Bhagavad Gita for Daily Living, Volume 1.