Tuesday, 28 January 2014

The Yoga of the Bhagavad Gita and Upanishads: Life in the World and Life in the Spirit

Whenever the word yoga is mentioned, what often comes to mind for many modern people are images of persons standing on their heads, or sitting in lotus position or holding other asana postures.  Hatha yoga has become popular for improving and maintaining health, long life, flexibility. Corporate yoga, as it has become in the modern world is now attached to gyms, fitness establishments as well as community centres, continuing education courses, yoga camps.  It has become the spirituality of the secular world, an acknowledgment of the need for physical balance, flexibility and holistic health.  It serves its purpose as an entry into the next stages of spiritual growth, although, it also sometimes masquerades as the be all and end all of yoga, asking for nothing more than a few hours a week of our time and focus.

The Bhagavad Gita teaches the higher purpose of Yoga, to unite the human immanent personal consciousness with its source, the transcendent universal consciousness pervading everything.  What the Gita discusses is the different forms yoga takes and its ultimate goal.  I like to start, however, with part of a verse found in the Gita:

Chapter 13 The Field and Its Knower:

Strive without ceasing
To know the Atman.
Seek this knowledge
And comprehend clearly
Why you should seek it:
Such, it is said,
Are the roots of true wisdom:
Ignorance, merely
Is all that denies them.

The Bhagavad Gita asks us to understand the reason for, the importance and significance of our practice of yoga and that is to know the Atman. True wisdom and its corollary – true happiness, purpose and meaning,  come to us from the Atman – that part of us that is eternally untouched by the dualities of living in this world subject to pleasure and pain, joy and sorrow.  We may indeed ask, how is that possible and what kind of purpose in life is that? How do we immerse ourselves in a world of separation and find the happiness inherent in unitary consciousness?   If it means abandoning life in the world to know only that which is eternal, how will this temporal life have meaning? The Gita asks us to live a fully conscious life in this temporal world. It asks us to apply our discernment to choose wisely, to understand why we do things, basing our lives and spiritual practice of yoga on a philosophy that we comprehend – not blindly follow.  “Comprehend clearly” is the instruction. Strive without ceasing to know the Atman: to strive….means effort – wisdom will not take root in unprepared ground – it is up to us to prepare the ground in our nature to be able to receive wisdom, to perceive differently, to experience, to have a sense of knowing the true Reality and what we are at our core. We are the field.  The seed is latent within us – the Knower of the field. But we must fertilize the earth with nutrients –our attention, provide water – a flow of energy, rely on the sun of knowledge to help the seed sprout and grow into full bloom.   Without ceasing……..means don’t give up – means eliminating distractions – things that pull us off the path- means not being discouraged by difficulties, obstacles – means seeking better understanding – being prepared to change, to reconsider one’s viewpoints, modify habits…….

Again, the Gita follows the Upanishads in the sense that it does not ask us necessarily to deny the world, the immanent in order to experience the transcendent.  Turning to the Isha Upanishad:

Life in the world and life in the spirit are not incompatible.  Work, or action, is not contrary to knowledge of God, but indeed, if performed without attachment, is a means to it.  On the other hand, renunciation is renunciation of the ego, of selfishness—not of life.  The end, both of work and of renunciation, is to know the Self within and Brahman without , and to realize their identity.  The Self is Brahman, and Brahman is all.

In balancing life in the world and life in the spirit, the Gita asks us to do a balancing act between the inner and the outer.  Embodied, we must attend to the outer for subsistence, for social interaction, for meaningful relationships, for development of our practical skills and to help others and society. To acquire wisdom though, we must retract from sense life and turn inward through meditation, in order to experience the life of the spirit.

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