The Bhagavad Gita: Action and Meditation

Printed in the Fall 2012 issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation: Kezwer, Glen "The Bhagavad Gita: Action and Meditation" Quest  100. 4 (Fall 2012): pg. 143-146.

By Glen Kezwer

 

Just as a mountain of ice melts and becomes water, so the mind will melt into the subtlest aspect of thinking through meditation. It will become so superfine that it will permeate the whole universe. At that time it will not be called mind; rather it will be known as the Self.

—Swami Shyam

Glen_KezwerAlthough the exact age of the Hindu sacred text known as the Bhagavad Gita is uncertain, it dates back at least 2000 years. While the world has changed dramatically since the Gita was written, one constant remains in human affairs: the mind of a human being. Whatever a present-day person has to deal with, he or she does so with the thinking processes of his or her mind. The same was true of people living at the time of the creation of the Gita, and indeed of all people throughout the history of humankind. The enduring factor is the mind. How we live our lives and maneuver through the various parts of our day, and whether we are able to achieve happiness, success, and joy all depend on how and what we think. Here all the ups and downs of our existence are decided. Even our mental attitude towards physical pain and disease determines, to a certain extent at least, how much we suffer from these ailments. The fear of death too is ultimately rooted in our thought processes.

Can we ever be free from the vicissitudes of our thoughts? Consider this: we actually are totally free from our thoughts for approximately one-third of our life, namely when we are asleep. Very little importance is generally given to sleep as a state of absolute freedom. Although in this state our entire physical and mental apparatus is still intact, we experience no pain or suffering, and for that matter no joy or happiness. Thus we as human beings do have the innate ability to enter a state of complete rest and peace. Of course I am not advocating that we simply sleep our lives away. Rather I am indicating that there is another state of mind which, like sleep, is free of all troubles, worries, fears, and tensions, but at the same time is more than sleep in that it is a state of freedom plus total awareness. This state is meditation.

The Gita's teachings essentially deal with how to handle our minds to achieve the maximum success, happiness, and spiritual fulfillment in our lives. This can be done through various means, which include the paths of knowledge, action, devotion, and meditation. Which path a particular person follows depends on his or her personal inclinations, nature, and proclivities. In fact, many people pursue a combination of paths rather than restricting themselves to one specific technique. In the present article, I am going to focus on meditation, both because I have personally practiced it for more than three decades and because its use is widespread.

 The Backdrop for the Teachings 

To reflect the fact that all persons must act throughout every day, the story of the Gita unfolds upon a stage of the most extreme action: a battlefield during a time of impending war between two opposing clans, the Pandavs and the Kauravs. The two characters involved are Krishna and Arjun. Arjun, the commander-in-chief of the Pandav army, decides to take one last look at the enemy ranks before leading his troops into combat. According to the Gita, 3,936,600 soldiers—1,593,900 in the Pandav army and 2,405,700 on the Kaurav side—fight at the great battle of Kurukshetra, the backdrop for its teachings. Along with this staggering number of soldiers (approximately equivalent to the entire population of Oregon marching onto the battlefield) are 393,600 elephants, an equal number of chariots, and 1,180,980 horses. And if this isn't enough, the air at the battlefield is rent with the horrific sounds of countless conches and bugles, accompanied by the war cries emerging from millions of angry throats.

To his utter dismay, Arjun discovers that he is going to engage an army filled with many of his nearest and dearest friends, companions, relatives, and mentors. Many of his kith and kin and highly respected teachers have taken up arms against him, and Arjun realizes that in order to win the war he will have to slay or be responsible for the deaths of countless men who are central to his life. The idea of killing them is abhorrent to him. Yet at the same time he is certain that the cause for which he is fighting is just in every moral and ethical sense, and he knows that it is his sworn duty as a soldier and leader of men to pursue the fight until victory is achieved.

Caught on the horns of this dilemma, Arjun is distraught. He has no ability within himself to find a way out of his predicament, and instead of wielding his mighty bow and leading the charge, he collapses weakly in the back of his chariot. Uttering the words, "I will not fight," he turns to his charioteer, Krishna, and begs for guidance. Now Krishna is more than just a part-time charioteer. He is also a fully enlightened being whose wisdom and consciousness are supreme and all-encompassing. Clearly Arjun has turned to the right person for help. Up to this point, the Gita has taken fifty-six verses to set the stage and pose Arjun's question to Krishna. The remaining 644 verses comprise Krishna's answer. 

The Immortal Self 

Surrounded by the tumult of war, Arjun has sought Krishna's counsel. With life and death hanging in the balance, Krishna describes—among other things—the technique of meditation. He talks to Arjun about sitting quietly in a clean spot on a seat which is neither too high nor too low and is covered with grass as an insulating material. Holding his body and head erect, Krishna tells Arjun, he should close his eyes and focus on the center of the space that appears in his field of perception.

Would such instruction not have been more appropriate for a living room, a temple, or—perhaps anachronistically—a yoga retreat? Is a battle to the death a time to talk about a process of sitting still, closing one's eyes, and perceiving the inner stillness? Yet here is Krishna, under these dire circumstances, telling Arjun about the benefits of meditation. He certainly is not directing Arjun to go and find a grass mat, sit on it, and close his eyes at that particular moment in time. But he is emphasizing the importance of meditation in preparing one's mind to handle all of life's predicaments. Most of us seldom, if ever, are required to act in such severe circumstances as those encountered in a war. The fact that the Gita is set on a battlefield indicates that the teachings it gives are of the utmost importance. In the midst of a war the consequences of Arjun's actions are crucial. They can mean survival or extinction for his side.

To me this is an emphatic statement of the importance the Bhagavad Gita places on meditation, not just for the purposes of relaxation or attaining peace of mind, but for dealing with all of life's contingencies. Krishna wants Arjun to understand that his own inner being or Self and the Self of one and all are beyond birth and death and can neither kill nor be killed. This knowledge will free him from doubt and inaction, and allow him to act effectively in the world in all situations.

Chapter six of the Gita, alternately entitled in Sanskrit "Dhyan Yoga" ("The Yoga of Meditation") or "Atma Sanyam Yoga" ("The Yoga of Complete Concentration on the Self"), presents both the theory and the practical aspects of meditation.

The message of the Gita is that all human beings have within themselves the power to live life and perform actions in the light of the highest knowledge. Simply put, this knowledge is that the source or underlying reality of every being is one and the same Brahm (absolute existence), Self, or Atma, which is beyond birth and death and cannot be destroyed. A person who lives in a manner that is consistent with this wisdom is able to live happily and effectively and have a peaceful mind, free from worry and tension. The Gita's teachings are not restricted to one period of time, a particular culture or group of people, or a certain geographical location. They are for everyone, everywhere, at all times.

At first glance it may sound easy to live a life of happiness, but in actual fact it is not. As human beings, we are subject to the whims and fancies of our minds, which can—and usually do—take us on a roller-coaster ride from morning to night. We live each day in an environment of constant action, endlessly doing things which involve us throughout our waking hours. Of course, this is simply called life. But to pursue life to its fullest, with a sense of joy, satisfaction, and balance as well as compassion for those around us takes effort and a special type of understanding. The Gita provides just that.

First and foremost, Arjun must act: "Every human being is helplessly driven by the force of nature to perform some kind of action, for without acting man cannot live even for a moment." (Bhagavad Gita, 3:5).

In order to act decisively and successfully, Arjun needs to understand the fundamental nature of existence. Here Krishna starts with the most profound wisdom: The Self—the essence of each and every human being—is not subject to birth and death.  "Arjun, the Self, which pervades all beings in the universe, is an indestructible substance. No one has the power to destroy it"  (Bhagavad Gita, 2:17).

The Self is infinite, unchanging, eternal, unfathomable, and self-illuminating. It cannot be destroyed by even the mightiest of weapons, nor can it be burned by fire, made wet by water, or dried by the wind. It is not touched by the multitude of events that transpire in the world, but is rather like the space of the sky, which is vast and encompasses all, yet remains free. The Self is the inner essence of, and one and the same in all human beings, including the soldiers on both sides of the battle. Ultimately this Self is ineffable. Words can only point our thinking in the direction of a true understanding of the Self, but can never take us fully there. To proceed further we need meditation.

The mind is the vehicle that blocks our access to higher knowledge, yet at the same time it can be transformed to bring us to that knowledge. If we grant the mind and its thoughts too much importance, then we are subject to the ups and downs, happiness and suffering, worry and easiness that they produce. But if we can change our perspective and observe the mind, or somehow step back from it, then we can better understand its functioning. This allows us to ultimately become the master of the mind rather than remaining a victim to its whims.

Arjun realizes that he needs a still, tranquil, even mind in order to think clearly and see the way out of his current dilemma, but he also knows that the mind is "turbulent, powerful and obstinate" and "as difficult to control as the wind." What chance does a person with such a mind have of attaining success in meditation? In answer to this, Krishna reassures Arjun, telling him that, despite the mind's tenacity, it can be made as steady as a candle flame in a windless place that does not flicker even slightly.

Krishna advises Arjun, and thereby all of humanity, to achieve stillness of mind by practicing the proper technique of meditation: Sit in a clean, comfortable place, close your eyes, focus your attention and begin to perceive what happens. You will notice, he tells Arjun, that thoughts will come and go in the mind. There is nothing wrong with this. Meditation does not mean stopping the thoughts or forcibly trying to control the mind. It means observing the thoughts without becoming involved in them, just as you would listen to children playing in a nearby schoolyard, hearing them but not being disturbed by their chatter. You should put your attention on the Knower or Seer of the thoughts, which is at all times free and uninvolved. Stillness or tranquility means identifying with this Knower who is observing these thoughts. Then, whether they appear or not, you are not bound by them. The Knower is the indestructible Self, your inner being. By fixing your attention on the source, your consciousness becomes infinitely vast, encompassing all that there is. Then you will know the Self by the power of the Self, content in the existence of the Self alone.

As you meditate, you will perceive an inner space behind your closed eyelids. This space is the source from which the waves of the mind emanate. It is neither form nor formlessness; it is indivisible, absolute Brahm. Watch the Knower-space and remain alert throughout your meditation. Sometimes the mind will wander and your concentration will wane. Because of this, it is helpful to use a mantra to focus the mind. If you find that at some point you have lost focus of the mantra, this is not a problem. Simply return your attention to it and continue watching the inner space, knowing at all times that that space is you, your own true nature.

What happens to the yogi in meditation is poetically and beautifully described in verse 6:25 (my rendition):

The meditator should meditate with full faith in his practice and observe with alertness as peace and tranquility gradually settle in his being. He should know that his consciousness has become established in the Self through the power of that very same Self alone. All division will dissolve as he realizes that his thought power and perception are faculties of the field of Pure Consciousness. Nothing else exists but That [Self].

With a peaceful mind, you can solve problems more effectively. Your vision is not clouded. You can watch your thoughts more dispassionately. The practice of meditation leads to the highest bliss, the state of endless happiness. Your mind attains a state of serenity, stillness, and oneness which rests in the Self, knowing that the Self is perceiving itself by its own power. Even the deepest of sorrows do not touch you. Enjoying this state of inner stillness, you able to act skillfully and effectively in the world, knowing all the time that the Self is present in all beings and all beings exist in the Self.


Unless otherwise noted, quotations from the Bhagavad Gita are taken from Swami Shyam, Bhagavad Gita, International Meditation Center, 1985.

Glen Kezwer is the teacher of "The Essence of the Bhagavad Gita." a course on the educational Web site www.transformationmeditation.com, as well as the auhor of the book Meditation, Oneness, and Physics. He has practiced, written on, and taught meditation since the early 1980s. He can be contacted at  gkezwer@gmail.com.