Re-interpreting the Bhagavad Gita

The Bhagavad Gita is an ancient Hindu text, supposed to have been written more than 5000 years ago.  According to Hindu mythology, Krishna recited the verses in the Gita to Arjuna, in the battlefield during the Mahabharata war. However, it is said that many of the sayings in the Gita can probably be traced to earlier Upanishads.

The Gita includes some pretty heady philosophy of the Personal Self (Atman) and the Supreme Consciousness (Brahman). Some of these parts may or may not be relevant in today’s context and body of knowledge.  This post will skirt around such philosophical questions and look on some of the more practical sayings of the Gita.

I would like to give a different slant to some of the sayings from the Gita as opposed to the accepted interpretation. This could be a case of the ‘devil citing the Scriptures for his own purpose’. In any case you decide

Here goes

Gita: You have a right to perform your prescribed duty, but you are not entitled to the fruits of action

The above saying requires us to do our prescribed work without giving thought to the results of the work. However most of us do something, in anticipation of success or a reward of some kind. To a large extent, it is this success/reward, which motivates us to do better. But it appears that the Gita wants us to ignore the reward, but just mindlessly carry on with our work, with total disregard for the outcome.

In my opinion this is not so. If people are not driven by the thought of success, people will  simply do things mechanically. I think is important that we always do, what we need to do, to the best of our abilities. While we can be mindful of the taste of success, we should not be so carried away by success that we under-perform. Also on the other hand after having tasted success we should neither become giddy-headed with success nor be broken hearted by failure. We need to be able to face both success and failure with equanimity. So in essence, while we can be driven by success, to perform better, we should not let this come in the way of our performance as either anxiety or over-confidence.

‘Nishkama karma’

The Gita enjoins us to perform ‘nishkama karma’ or desireless -action. In fact the Gita goes on to say that ‘desire leads to anger, anger leads delusion, from delusion loss of memory and finally loss of spiritual intelligence’. In other words desire is the root of all evil.

This is again a very sticky point. For this we need to understand what desire really is and when it is bad?  Some people take the route that all desire is bad. They carry it to the extreme where and claim that one has to be content with whatever life throws one’s way.

My interpretation is that there is a fine line between desire and ambition. To me, it absolutely fine, if you want to become a millionaire, get the snazziest car or desire for a really great house as long as you work  honestly towards acquiring it. Desire is only bad when we try to acquire the object of desire through illegal, wrongful methods. However as the Gita says we should not get attached to these worldly belongings.

So after you become a millionaire, if you start getting attached to the millionaire lifestyle then you are in for some deep trouble. So go after what you want, but do not become dependent on these worldly acquisitions. Do not be under the impression, that Gita forbids ambition of any sort.

A true yogi treats success and failure, praise and criticism, good and bad alike.

This saying has the danger of being mis-interpreted that we should neither react to success or failure nor to good or bad things that happen to us in our life. In reality what we need to do, is not get proud because of success, nor be dejected because of failure. If we face problems in our lives we should not face them stoically all the while imagining ourselves to be a true yogi or the ‘biblical Job’. Rather we have to stand up to our problems and take positive action.

So those are my interpretation of some of the more common sayings in the Bhagavad Gita.

On the universe, evolution, God and religion

Spiral-galaxy-wallpaperHere are some of my ruminations on the universe, evolution, God and religion

The Universe: If only we stop to ponder about the universe we will be absolutely fascinated by it. In the universe there are 100 billion galaxies, each galaxy has several hundred billion stars and each star has several trillion planetary systems and satellites. If we consider the universe to the size of the earth, then the earth itself would be the size of a grain of sand.

In other words the earth is a tiny, miniscule drop in the ocean of the universe. We are located in some remote, inconspicuous corner of the universe. The universe itself started 13.4 billion years ago when there was a cataclysmic event, the Big Bang, when the universe itself was a singular point in space-time. Time, space and the universe were created thereafter. The stars, planets, galaxies have been flung out from the moment of the big bang and the universe is still expanding, The fact that the big bang occurred and the galaxies, stars are moving away, can be measured by the velocity with which they are either receding or moving towards the earth resulting in a red or blue shift in the light spectrum.  A few weeks backs scientists have been able to measure the gravitational waves created during the birth pangs of the Universe about 13.2 billion years ago.

Evolution:  The theory of evolution as propounded by Charles Darwin in his “Origin of Species’ is truly a fascinating work of careful scientific analysis backed by painstaking effort at observing, recording and analysis. Darwin shows very clearly how different species of flora and fauna are formed. The forces of ‘natural selection’ and ‘survival of fittest’ act very strongly, resulting in the perpetuation of certain characteristics in the species, which allow it to survive into future generations.  Those species that are unable to survive by adapting to the natural environment become extinct. The evolution of mammals, fishes and birds all exhibit remarkable changes in physical characteristics of internal and external organs, color and other attributes.  These changes take place over many centuries. It is also fascinating when we realize in how many ways we have changed from our earlier ancestors for example the Neanderthals.

For e.g. the forearms have become shorter, our foreheads have become broader to accommodate a bigger pre-frontal cortex for more cerebral activities. The pre-historic man existed about 4 million years ago. We, the modern man, have a come long way through evolution.

God: The knowledge of the universe and evolution clearly show us where we have come from and how we have arrived here. So where does this leave God?  To be honest, God, as we now know it, loses significance. As Carl Sagan says, it would be really odd that in this vastness of space and time, to believe in a local God for this earth in some insignificant corner of the universe.   Our understanding of God is only about 5 thousand years old. Whereas the universe in itself is more than 13.5 billion years old. The fact that we evolved from pre-historic man is an established fact.  The age of the universe has been confirmed time and again. We need to rethink our beliefs in this context. Also evolution has confirmed the progressive sophistication of beings and thus man.

It is possible that you may ask? What was there before the Big Bang? Who created the universe at the time of the big bang?  The answer is “We don’t know”. Can we assume that chance and nature created man and all creatures with such complexity? To this we can say that evolution for millions of years have produced all these variations.

So, to many of the questions,  we can just say,  we don’t know. Our limited intellect and finite brain cannot comprehend beyond a certain amount. So it is best to say we really don’t know.

Religion: So really nothing can be said about God. There are lots of things we don’t know.

So what can we say about religion. In my opinion, we do not need a God for religion. All religions talk about the same principles of integrity, kindness, compassion and mercy. So whether we believe or don’t believe in an omnipotent, omniscient, all knowing God, we can all practice good moral values of kindness, integrity, compassion and love. This is something that is eternal and has always existed.

So whether you agree or disagree with my views I hope you subscribe to the moral view that we need to have true north based principles and values in this existence of ours.

Spiritual echoes in the Tao Te Ching, Bhagavad Gita and the Bible

tgb1Here are some remarkable spiritual echoes from the 3 ancient texts namely the Tao Te Ching by the Chinese sage Lao Tzu, the Bhagavad Gita as propounded by Sri Krishna and Jesus Christ in his sermon on the mount in the Bible.

It amazing that there are so many parallels in the Tao Te Ching,  the Gita and the Bible. What is more interesting is that these happened many millennia ago at 3 different places on the earth.

So here goes …

In the Tao Te Ching, the Tao is described as ‘the changeless’  and ‘the formless’. Similarly the Gita talks of the Brahman, which is beyond the senses, intellect and the mind,   as ‘changeless, tasteless, odorless and colorless’. These texts discuss the need for the attainment of  this Tao or the Brahman as the ultimate goal of man

Echoes in the Tao Te Ching and the Gita

Both the Tao and the Gita suggest that we need to perform actions without a desire or an attachment to the fruits or results

Tao: “All things spring up, and there is not one which declines to show itself;
they grow, and there is no claim made for their ownership;
they go through their processes, and there is no expectation (of a reward for the results).”

Gita: “Perform your duty in the spirit of ‘niskama-karma’ or desireless action. Offer the fruits and the results thereof to God”

The Tao-te-Ching and the Gita discuss that one who knows and has attained the Brahman or enlightenment do not care to speak about it as the Tao & the Brahman cannot be described verbally. The Brahman & Tao are beyond verbalization and can only be experienced.

Tao: “He who knows (the Tao) does not (care to) speak (about it);
he who is (ever ready to) speak about it does not know it.””

Gita: “He who knows (the Brahman) talks not, he who talks knows not (the Brahman)”

Regarding action, both the Tao and the Gita discuss that for those who have attained enlightenment performing action becomes unnecessary. These enlightened souls transcend action completely.

Tao: “He diminishes it and again diminishes it, till he arrives at doing nothing (on purpose).
Having arrived at this point of non-action, there is nothing which he does not do.”

Gita: “A true Brahman is one who has renounced action through devotion and whose doubt has been removed by knowledge and is composed in his self is not bound by karma”

Echoes in the Tao Te Ching and the Bible

The Tao and the Bible suggest that gentleness and flexibility can overcome power and inflexibility. In the Tao Te Ching the example of gentle water eroding the strongest rocks is provided as an example of this principle.

Tao : “The soft overcomes the hard; and the weak the strong.”

Bible: “The meek shall rule the world.” (Thanks to Steve Tanner for pointing out that ‘the meek’ in this context refers to a person who is moderate in his/her approach and who does not go to extremes)

Both the Bible and the Tao Te Ching underscore the importance of forgiveness. They extol the need to be shower kindness and blessings even on those who treat you with derision and contempt.

Tao : “To those who are good (to me), I am good;
and to those who are not good (to me), I am also good;—
and thus (all) get to be good.
To those who are sincere (with me), I am sincere;
and to those who are not sincere (with me), I am also sincere;—
and thus (all) get to be sincere.”

Bible: “Love thy enemy”.
Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who treat you with disdain..
Show your right cheek if somebody slaps your left.”

Echoes in the Bible and the Gita

The Gita and the Bible re-iterate the fact that we should not judge or form opinions about others when we ourselves are not faultless

Bible: Judge not, lest ye be judged. Condemn not, lest ye be condemned.

Gita: Enlightened men are those who see the same in a Brahmana with learning, a cow, an elephant or a dog. In other words the yogi does not form opinions or judgments about others. A true yogi treats all persons with the same footing.

Another common thread in the Bible and the Gita is that we need to look into ourselves to understand the divine

Bible : The kingdom  of God cometh not with observation. For behold, the kingdom of the God is within you.

Gita: Above the senses, the mind and the intellect is the Atman which is within you. In the Upanishad’s this is also mentioned as “Tat tvam asi”, “Thou art that”.  The Atman is inside you and we become aware of it through self-inquiry.

The Gita and the Bible enjoin us to cut desire at the root.

Bible: You cannot serve God and Mammon at the same. Here Mammon refers to the desire for wealth.

Gita:  Perform ‘niskama-karma’ or desireless action.

It is really amazing that these 3 enlightened souls had such remarkable clarity and similarity in their view of the path towards enlightenment.

Top ten tips for leading a fulfilling life

We have heard a zillion times about the ways about becoming rich, about becoming powerful, on becoming successful and other cool things. I include below the top 10 ways of leading a fulfilling life. If you live a fulfilled life you will pretty soon convince yourself that you have also been successful.

So here goes. The 10 tips in no particular order

  1. Be content. Be ambitious: The former statements will sound conflicting. But on closer look it really is not. At any given point in your life you should be content with what you have whether it is your personal fortune, your learning or your talents. But at any juncture in your life you must also be ambitious. It is fine to want wealth, to want fame, to want power as long as you do not compromise on true principles. Be ambitious and be proactive. Seize the initiative to make things happen in your life.
  1. Never let go of common sense:  This is another important principle. Any action that you ever take or any new step that endeavor must withstand the test of common sense. If you want to invest in stocks ask yourself “Is this what large majority of people in my situation would do?”  Granted no great discovery comes from common sense but a large part of our life is governed by common sense. So for e.g. common sense dictates that we save some part of our wealth for our and our family’s future. Common sense requires that we hone our talents at office so we can move up the ladder. Common sense requires us to increase our friend’s circle. All your actions must have common sense as the foundation.
  1. Make values your guiding light: This tip requires that we never compromise on true north bound principles under any circumstance. Values of integrity, perseverance, humility, compassion have with stood the test of time. In a way they are common sense. We should never compromise on principles even under adversity. In the long run a principled life will save your day.
  1. Fraternize, fraternize and fraternize: Never underestimate the power of a social circle. Increase your circle of friends and indirectly increase your circle of influence. In this era of social networking make maximum use of Facebook, Twitter and good old phone calls to say hi to old friends and make new friends. Friends are useful in so many ways. They can be used as sounding boards, to discuss new ideas, to learn from their experience and their failures
  1. Get to know yourself: This may sound unusual.  After all, what is there to know about you yourself? Actually there is a goldmine of knowledge inside you. For one you try to understand what your real strengths and weaknesses are. With a little common sense you can try to further improve your strengths while working on your weaknesses. Besides one should also take a closer look at one’s biases and pre-conceived notions. Dive deep into your past and you are bound to come up with pearls of wisdom on what worked well in your life and what did not.
  1. Exercise: Exercise your body, mind and spirit. At whatever stage of life you are at make sure you get an adequate amount of physical exercise. You could hit the gym thrice a week, pump irons or just take a brisk walk everyday. After all if you want to live your life well and enjoy it a good body is essential. Read a lot of good books and exercise your mind. Jogging your mind is necessary to stay young as you grow old in life. Finally exercise your spirit by serving people in whatever way you can. You can perform random acts of kindness. Go out of your way to spread joy to people. For those spiritually inclined praying fervently is also
  1. All good things take time: Remember life is a marathon and one needs to be patient in life. We have to work patiently to improve ourselves and our talents. There are no enduring short cuts in life. Your life will be intertwined with the lives of your grandparents, your parents, your siblings, your children and your grand children. You have to work your way through all the numerous interactions in life. Persevere and work patiently in achieving your goal.
  1. Lower your expectations: Keep your expectations low. As St. Francis of Assisi said “Expect nothing. Enjoy everything”. As long as you keep your expectations low you are bound to be happy and satisfied with what you get. While you can be ambitious in life you must also keep your expectations of yourself realistic.
  1. Be grateful: Be grateful for the little things that you have been given in this life. Avoid comparisons to others. While it may appear that your friends and colleagues who may have more that you are happier in reality they may not be. Happiness is not in what you have but in what you choose to be. Choose to be happy and enjoy everything.
  1. Have a purpose in life: “What is the meaning of my life” may sound rhetorical. But you could have a simple enough reason like making sure that you buy your own house in the next 5 years, to spending an hour a week at an ashram to giving 1% of your salary to the poor every year. A purpose in life will help you tide through troubles in life. As Nietzsche said “Anybody who knows the why of life can almost certainly handle any how”

If you follow even a few of these tips you are bound to have a more fulfilling and hence successful life.

The purpose of life is constant renewal

As we progress through life we accumulate various unique experiences. From our individual experiences we form opinions, judgments and biases. From our biases we start to build our belief systems. Based on our belief system we start to act one way or the other.

For e.g. our belief system may result in our finding fault with our friend or our relative. We have our own set of beliefs of what is right and what is wrong. We think a person should have acted in some particular way. When we find them behaving in a different way then we begin to find fault with them. However the person so acting is doing so based on his/her belief on what on what the correct response should be.

Hence in this world all of us carry within ourselves our own individual belief systems which are usually the result of a lot of confusion and strife in this world.

Our primary purpose in life is to reflect deeply on own belief system and constantly try to refine our view of the world. Most of the time, many of us just carry on with our own ideas of how things should be. We rarely ever try to realign our belief systems. We just continue to stick to our views rigidly which we formed based on our experiences in this world.

Every now and then we need to take stock of our beliefs and our value system. One way to do this is to read the scriptures or to read or listen to the masters. We then will have to reflect on the true meaning behind the words. For e.g. the verse from the Gita “do your duty without any attachment and dedicate the fruits to God” can mean different things to different people. For some it can mean that one has to go to office and stomach all sorts of indignities heaped on one in official life. To a housewife it could mean “being a good mother and wife”. But the more we think about this we realize that there are a million different shades to the above statement. It could imply doing our duty as a son, father, husband, friend, colleague, worker, boss to being a good Samaritan a good citizen and so on. Similarly the biblical saying “if anyone smites thee on one check, show him the other” could again mean many things from quietly accepting ill-treatment, to changing another through magnanimity or to repay with love, acts of violence.

In any case, we need to reflect and refine our beliefs. This will take time. We should not persist in stagnating in our rigid views. We have to constantly refine our personal views of the world. This is imperative in life.

The mind has its own reasons

“The mind has its own reasons” may come as a surprise. But this is very true. While we may consciously reason and want to react in a certain way, when a situation presents itself we react instantaneously based on our internal conditioning. In other words we behave according to the reasoning of our mind.

We may read profound philosophy, be able to articulate noble ideas and thoughts. But in our daily lives when someone attacks our ego we react with anger. All our spirituality and philosophy simply goes up in smoke. We may cool down as an afterthought.

What this indicates to us is that intellectual understanding of spirituality is one thing but adherence to it in real life is completely different. It is not enough that we understand spirituality. We have to internalize it through constant practice.

We have to be able to remove the deep programming that is within us. We have to peel layer by layer this conditioning of ours. It is not easy to react with kindness when somebody is mean to us. Generations of conditioning will make us spew venom in retaliation to meanness. Is there a way to remove this conditioning?

In my opinion, spirituality like any other discipline requires years of practice and a constant unswerving devotion to God. We must through practice internalize good values in our lives.

It is only then will be able to be unruffled by “criticism or praise” as the Gita requires us. It is only then will be able to “love our enemy” as suggested by Christ.

But to achieve such a state in life is no easy task and requires discipline, and an in-depth understanding of our own mind. We must dispel all the cobwebs of evil in our mind.

Only then can we lead a truly virtuous life.

The puzzle of life – The Hindu, Christian and Buddhist view

Life is a puzzle at best. Different religions and religious philosophies have different approaches to life and the way to handle it. While at one end of the spectrum all religions are the same, at the other end they are unique and look at life from a completely different angle. This post tries to look at 3 of major religions of the world and their approach to life and how to conduct ourselves

Buddhism: Buddhism answers the essential question “What is life?” The root of all existence,according to Buddhism, is human suffering. Buddha expounds that life is suffering, in his four noble truths. Buddhism further clarifies that suffering is born of attachment, cessation of suffering is attainable and the path to cessation is based on taking the middle path given in his eight-fold path.

Hinduism: Hinduism essentially answers the question as to “how should one lead life?” According to Lord Krishna in the Gita, one should perform one’s duty with detachment and without any concern for the fruits of the action. We should perform all actions as a sacrifice to God in the full awareness that it is the Creator who is the doer of all actions. Further the Gita tells us that it is better to do what is intrinsic to one’s nature rather than just do something for another.

Christianity: The central message of Christianity is “how should one behave”. The bible requires us love one’s neighbor as one loves oneself. In fact, Jesus goes to the extent of requiring us to love where we would want to hate or in other words we are to “love our enemy”. The Bible also enjoins us to forgive those who err against us, pray for those who despise us. We are to lead a life of love, compassion and mercy.

While all the religions require us to conduct our lives with highest moral principles they essentially show a different path.

Parallel philosophies of Lord Krishna and Christ

There are many parallels in the philosophies of Lord Krishna as mentioned in the  Bhagavad Gita and Jesus Christ in the Bible. This post highlights some of the parallels below

Christ: Judge not, lest ye be judged. Condemn not, lest ye be condemned.

Lord Krishna: Enlightened men are those who see the same in a Brahmana with learning, a cow, an elephant or a dog. In other words the yogi does not form opinions or judgments about others. A true yogi treats all persons with the same footing.

Christ: Love your enemy. Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who treat you with disdain.

Lord Krishna: A true yogi is unaffected by praise or criticism. By always dwelling in the Atman he is unruffled by hatred, contempt or anger.  According to the Gita, a true yogi is a person who is expansive in his heart. He has risen above the joy that comes from praise or the hurt that comes from bitter criticism

Christ: Thekingdom ofGod cometh not with observation. For behold, the kingdom of the God is within you.

Lord Krishna: Above the senses, the mind, the intellect is the Atman which is within you. In the Upanishad’s this is also mentioned as “Tat tvam asi”, “Thou art that”.  The Atman is inside you and we become aware of it through self-inquiry.

Christ: You cannot serve God and Mammon at the same. Here Mammon refers to the desire for wealth.

Lord Krishna:  Perform niskama-karma or desireless action. Offer all the fruits of your action to God. Rise above desires and passion. Lord Krishna in the Gita enjoins us to rise above the rajasic nature of passion to a sattvic nature of principled living.

Though the words were different Lord Krishna and Jesus Christ were saying the same thing.

Gita’s principles for professional excellence

Our professional life and career depends on what we do, how we do what we do and finally on critical decision making. We are constantly faced with these three posers in our career. The Bhagavad Gita expounds some fundamental insight which can be applied in our daily lives and are very relevant in our professional lives as well. To the first question of what is right action ” The Gita tells us that it is superior to perform actions according to our own nature and not according to the whim or fancy of another. This is particularly relevant when we consider our career moves. One should make sure that the work and the role he takes us is to his liking and is according to his natural tendencies. As they say, “If you enjoy what you do, you will never work again in your life”.

To the question of ” how” at a fundamental level the Gita enjoins us to “Therefore do your duty without attachment to the fruits of the action”. We are requested to perform our daily duties and offer the resulting success or failure as an offering to God. This philosophy of Karma Yoga of the Gita is both simple and profound. If everybody in the society performed his/her duty then everything would function very smoothly. We cannot shirk away our responsibilities. Even Lord Krishna states that though he is above all action he is constantly in the thick of things just to maintain the physical, social and psychological equilibrium of the world. So also we should not shirk our responsibility and we should perform our duties to the best of our abilities. If this attitude is adopted success is bound to come our way.

One of the most brilliant insights into action and decision making is in the following lines of the Gita “One who sees inaction in action and action in inaction, know that he is wise”. This is the most fundamental lines for decision making. One should not just react to everything that nature throws in our way. Rather we should deliberate the course of correct action and the appropriate time for our response. Sometimes the best decision is no decision at all. So it is imperative to not just understand what is the right action but also when that action is most appropriate. There are times when there is a lot of activity in the organization and any resulting action on your part will be drowned in the confusion and melee. Rather one should time one’s response and decision as appropriate. Hence it is possible when everything is calm that one perceives the right moment to make a decision. This wisdom and insight can only come through a highly perceptive mind. This is the true guide for right action.

Hence for excelling in our professional lives at a fundamental level the Gita requires us a) Perform the duties according to our own nature b) Perform our duties unmindful of the fruits of the action c) Ensure that both the timing and our response is correct. If we follow these three principles in our career we are bound to succeed.

Tinniam V Ganesh

The dance of karma and dharma

Often the Hindu philosophy is wrongly referred to as being fatalistic. We are supposed to be caught in the web of our own past actions or karma from which there is no escape. This in other words is our fate and we are supposed to live with it. In Tamil they say if it is one’s “vidhi” then one should just accept it.

But what people often forget that while we are bound by our karma we are free to choose our response to our past karma or choose our response in the present. We need not just lie down and face all the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”. There is nothing stopping us from “taking arms against our sea of troubles and oppose and end them” as Shakespeare would put it. Now the crucial point is what should be our response. It is in this context that we have to look at the dharma of our response. There is always the right action according to Buddhist philosophy. So when we exercise our choice we have to fully understand the context in which are acting and make the correct decision. This is dharma. So if we are faced with evil then we
stand up and fight it. If we encounter failure then we take action to avoid it in future. As Stephen Covey’s states in his book “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” that a fundamental principle about the nature of man is that he/she is free to choose in the space between a stimulus and its response. So according to the Gita the stimulus that we encounter in the present may be the result of our past karma, but our response to it is governed by our free will. The Gita requires that we perform right action and make the right choice. So while we are free to make a choice among a set of alternatives we do not have any control to the consequence of choices we make. While it is known that good action always begets good results and bad acts will always reap evil. Or in others we are bound by the karma of the choice we make. So we have to make the correct choice within the purview of the situation. Like Arjuna who was confronted on the battle field against his kin the Kauravas wanted to shirk away but the dharma of the situation as clarified by Lord Krishna was to fight against the Kauravas. It is a fact that good actions will result in good providence and evil acts will beget evil.

One’s present tense depends on whether one’s past was perfect. The future of course depends on the choices we make in the present with good actions usually resulting in good fruits. To summarize while our present is bound by our past karma, we are free to choose, based on dharma. However the choice we make good or bad will result in either good karma or otherwise.

Tinniam V Ganesh