Saturday, July 18, 2020

Living Bhagavad Gita 024: The Miracle of Listening

A series of short articles on the Bhagavad Gita for people living and working in our volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous times filled with stress and fear. This scripture born in a battlefield teaches us how to face our challenges, live our life fully, achieve excellence in whatever we do and find happiness, peace and contentment.

[Continued from the previous post.]
One of the fascinating things about the Gita chapter we are about to finish discussing is that Krishna says just a single sentence of five words here: partha pashya etaan samavetaan kuroon – Arjuna, see these assembled kurus. After that he remains totally silent, listening to Arjuna. As Arjuna passes through various stages of confusion, frustration, depression, melancholy and finally reaches the depths of his vishada, Krishna pays full attention to him. He speaks again only after Arjuna has collapsed in his chariot abandoning his bow and arrows at the end of the chapter and the next chapter begins. He gives Arjuna space to say all he wants to say without interrupting once. And after he has stopped speaking, Krishna provokes him to speak again, helping him to expresses anything more that might be lurking in the depths of his mind. This is like emptying a vessel and then pouring some water into it, shaking the vessel well and emptying it again to clean out anything that might have been still  be in it. As Krishna does so, Arjuna brings out the rest of his pain and agony and confusion from his inner depths, thus making his mind empty and receptive to Krishna’s teachings. That emptiness at the end of pouring out all that is in your mind is a requirement to receive the teachings of the Gita.
Very little of Gita can go into a crowded mind, which is the reason why we too must practice some sadhana for emptying the mind along with the study of the Gita, like a meditation. A few minutes of meditation every day and living the whole day meditatively will take us a long way. Living the whole day meditatively is not difficult because all you have to do is to focus completely on whatever you are doing. Meditation is focusing your attention on a single thing, whether it is your breath, abdominal movement, a mantra, a sound, an image or anything else.  In his classic The Miracle of Mindfulness, Thich Nhat Hanh speaks of transforming everyday actions like washing vessels into meditation by the simple practice of paying full attention to them. 
One of the most famous Zen stories is about a university professor who went to meet a Zen master to learn Zen from him. While the professor began introducing himself, the master ordered tea. A disciple brought tea and the master began pouring the tea into a cup while the professor talked about the researches he has done, the researches he is engaged in at the moment, his future research plans and so on. Listening quietly without saying a word, the Zen master kept pouring the tea into the cup which had by then become full and had started spilling over. Suddenly the professor noticed this and said, “Master, the cup is full. No more will go in!”
And the master stopped and said, “You are like this cup, professor. You are so full of yourself that no Zen will go in now. Empty yourself and come back.”
Without emptying ourselves, we cannot receive wisdom. Wisdom is given only to those who have become silent inside and not to those with crowded minds. Krishna is allowing Arjuna to go on talking so that his mind becomes empty and receptive to what he has to say.
There is another reason why Krishna listens to Arjuna attentively without interrupting. The greatest thing anyone can do for a man who is in pain and grief is to listen to him. Being heard is healing.  Just the fact that someone is listening to us attentively, the fact that someone feels what we have to say is important, will have a positive effect on us, as anyone who has ever wanted to talk to someone and has found someone to listen to him knows.
I remember my days as the principal of a large junior college. One day a girl student in her teens came to me weeping, her whole body shaking, the power of each sob sending violent tremors through her whole body. I seated her conformably on a sofa in my chamber and gave her plenty of time to relax and catch her breath. It was only after quite some time that she started sharing her problem. It took me a long time to get the whole picture from her as she shared her pain in words interspersed with periods of sobbing.
This young girl was extremely beautiful and very sweet. One of her plain looking teachers could not tolerate her beauty or the fact that all the boys liked her. So she began insulting her in class, finding fault with her for everything, calling her an idiot for the smallest errors she made and also saying things like she has no interest in studies but was interested only in drawing boys to her, she was a trap and a danger to the boys and bad example to other girls. The teacher went to the extent of calling the young girl a slut in the classroom.
It took me more than an hour of more or less silent listening to put her at ease and then to assure her she would be fine, nothing would happen to her. I had instructed my secretary who sat just outside my chamber not to let anyone come in so that I could listen to her uninterrupted, paying full attention. I can’t say she was healed of her pain by the time she left my room, but she had certainly become relaxed, with even a gentle smile appearing on her face as she was thanked me and left.
Krishna listens with complete attention to whatever Arjuna has to say because listening with complete attention is in itself healing.
By the way, listening with complete attention is also the greatest compliment you can give anyone. We all need attention – that is one of the greatest people truths.  
The following passage is from Brenda Shoshanna’s beautiful book Zen Miracles: Finding Peace in an Insane World, a book that I have used as a text in a course called Zen and the Executive Mind that I taught for several years in one of the top business schools of India, XLRI School of Business and Human Resources.    
“A Zen student, Leila, went to the beach for the weekend. After a hectic week she looked forward to peace, to the smell of the ocean, to the sand dunes. There was a woman cleaning in the guest house Leila was staying at. This woman, Frieda, sang very loud love songs in Spanish as she swept the floors. In addition, she was noisy and clumsy.

“As usual, Leila woke up early in the morning and wanted to do zazen. She tidied her room, and placed a cushion on the floor to sit on. Just as she sat down on it she heard a bang against the door. Frieda was sweeping outside and had knocked the door with her broom. She was also singing loudly, “My heart’s breaking, breaking today.”

“Leila sat on the cushion, listening to the shrill song. “What will I do without you?” Frieda kept wailing. Finally, Leila got up, opened the door and called, “Frieda, can you be a little more quiet?”

“Frieda didn’t fully understand English and kept right on singing.

“Leila went back to sit down again, but not only did the song get louder, the broom started banging her door consistently.  Finally, she got up from the cushion wondering what was wrong with the woman. Negative thoughts started to brew but thanks to years of zazen, she caught herself. “Stop it,” she said to the dark mind that was forming. Leila realized that when we want to be apart from something, it clings to us; when we want to be too close, it runs away.

“She opened the door and went out of the room. The minute Frieda saw her, she flew over, standing no more than two inches away. It seemed she had taken a great liking to Leila. Leila turned to go outside in the street, and Frieda followed along.  “Where are you going?” she said. “To the beach,” Leila said. Frieda grinned. “Me too. Going along.”

“As they walked down the dirt road to the ocean, Frieda kept humming and Leila resisted, trying to shut her out. She started concentrating on other things. Then the humming turned into loud singing again. Leila focused on the delicious salt air and took deep gulps of it. The singing got louder still. Whatever Leila did to block it out, it only got louder. Then, suddenly Master Rinzai’s words came to her: “If we master each circumstance, then whatever we do is the truth.” How am I going to master this? she wondered.  They arrived at the beach with Frieda singing relentlessly.”
“When they got to the sand, Leila spread out a blanket and sat down; Frieda planted herself right beside her again. As Leila watched the waves of the ocean roll up on the shore, she suddenly stopped pushing Frieda away, and fell into zazen. She stopped wanting things to be different. She stopped wanting quiet time alone at the beach. This was the circumstance she was in now, hearing Frieda sing over and over that her heart was breaking...”
As we shall see, this incident Brenda Shoshanna shares is about listening, but it is about other things too. It is about accepting things as they are, people as they are, life as it is, and many more things. As a practitioner of Zen,
Leila is trying to use every situation that life presents as an opportunity for practicing Zen. Let’s continue with Shoshanna’s narration. Something beautiful happens now. 
“Frieda was swaying as she sang, and Leila found herself swaying as well. As the two of them sat there swaying, Frieda’s voice became softer. Leila turned and looked at Frieda. Tears were pouring down her face.

“Frieda said, “You, my mamma. Missing my mamma.” Leila finally understood that Frieda was missing her mother, who was far away. She must have reminded Frieda of her mother.  Frieda was sitting there crying and in a moment Leila started crying as well. She was also missing her mother, who had died a year ago. The two of them sat there crying on the blanket together until Leila turned and gave Frieda a hug. Soon the crying subsided, the singing subsided—they were simply sitting together, listening to the sound of the waves.”

What a beautiful experience! Leila could have rejected Frieda, shouted at her, instead she accepts her, listens to her attentively. A woman in great pain and loneliness is consoled. The pain she had been storing inside her suffocating her melts and comes out in the form of her tears and an amazing relationship is formed between the two women who were strangers just a few minutes ago!
Listening can do miracles. Paying attention to others can do miracles.

Unfortunately in today’s world no one has time to listen to others! All of us are in such hurry and we all have so much to say! How can we listen to others then?


I remember a sad story reported by newspapers several years ago.

As the parents were getting the little baby ready for school she was resisting and saying she did not want to go. Well, that was nothing unusual, so they continued. But as they put her foot in one of her shoes she started screaming but they ignored that too. Just the daily drama taken to just another level, they thought. They tied up the shoe laces after putting the other foot in the other shoe and hurried her out as they heard the school bus coming.

The baby kept screaming in the bus and then continued crying aloud in the school too for two more hours. It is only then one of the teachers noticed blood was draining from her face and her body was slowly turning blue while the child kept up with the screaming which had by now become weak. Soon the baby collapsed in a swoon and the teacher loosened her uniform and removed her shoes. It was then she saw it – there was a scorpion inside the child’s shoe, still alilve! It was the scorpion bite that had made her scream in the first place and now her foot was all swollen up and the poison had spread to other parts of her body too.  As I remember the news said the poor baby died of the scorpion poisoning.

Just the other day I saw a sad You Tube video about a little child fighting with her mother insisting that she did not want to go to school. The mother asked her why and she said it was no fun, they didn’t allow her to play, it was only study and study all the time, and you had to sit without moving and do all the teacher asked you to do. The mother asked her if they don’t sing songs in school, if they don’t dance and she said it was just abcd and numbers and nothing else. The baby kept saying she did not want to go to school, wept, begged her mother not to send her to school. As you watched the baby’s helpless frustration, tears welled up in your eyes and you felt it difficult to breathe. But I felt that was not how the mother saw it – I could hear her laughing at what the baby was saying, as though she found it all amusing rather than painful.

I know perhaps mothers today have no choice, such is what education has become, particularly in India with such high premium placed on education and with so many first and second generation learners. I remembered all those lectures on Rousseau I gave to future teachers in a College of Education where I taught for many years. Speaking about the right kind of education, Rousseau said “education practices the art of delay,” meaning we must delay sending children to schools as much as possible. The father of modern education also said the best education is negative education, meaning we much give children as little book education as possible, and instead send them back to nature for natural education. Sadly all those ideas have been wiped away by the tides of time and what we see today all around us is little babies going to school bent under the weight of heavy backpacks. They look like mountain climbers with huge trekking bags. Education should be pleasurable, said Rousseau, but that is not exactly what we see when we look at our schools. Even then shouldn’t parents at least give a sympathetic ear to children when they say they do not want to go to school?

In his book Is the American Dream Killing You? Paul Stiles speaks of how we have all become servants of an all-powerful entity called Market and how that entity has made in the short span of just two generations joint families disappear from the face of the earth. True, joint families had their own problems, but they were wonderful places for children to grow up in, with many generations living together, and several children of near ages growing up together and there was always someone to listen to you when you wanted to talk. Today instead of parents and grandparents, it is the paid caregivers at the day care centers who look after you. More than Anything Else in the World is a powerful, award winning Brazilian movie I once saw in a film festival. It talked about the loneliness of a little girl growing up with her single mother who works nine to five in modern Rio de Janeiro and the hell life has become for her and the mother.

Much of the insanity and violence in the world today is because no one has time to listen to children in their most important years of growing up.  


One of the greatest leadership skills is listening skill, some would even say it is the greatest leadership skill. A story from third century China tells us of King Ts’ao taking his son Prince Ta’i to Pan Ku, the best guru in the country who lived near the Ming Li forest. The king requested Pan Ku to give the prince the best possible education as the future ruler of the country.

When the king left, Pan Ku turned to the young boy and told him, “Go the forest and build a small hut there for yourself. Live in that hut for a full year listening to the sound of the forest. Come back to me after the year is over.” The boy was completely confused by the order. He had expected to be taught strategic leadership skills, people skills, planning skills, the vision and mission of a king and all else he would need tomorrow as a ruler. Instead he was being asked to go and live in the forest all alone listening to the sound of the forest. But since there was no one he could complain to since his father himself had left him with the guru, he quietly went and lived in the forest as he was told to. He listened to all the sounds of the forest – the rustle of leaves, the chirping of crickets, the buzzing of bees, the roar of lions, the song of birds, the laughter of hyenas, the chattering of the monkeys... He waited impatiently for the year to be over and then went back to the master.

“Did you listen to the sound of the forest?” asked the master and the prince said, “Yes, master.” And when Pan Ku asked him what he had heard, he started naming the different sounds he had heard. As the list grew, the guru’s face began growing darker and darker and when he finished, the guru shouted, “Back to the forest. Come back after one more year.”

The furious and frustrated young man went back to the forest and for a while continued listening. But he had already spent an entire year listening just to the sounds of the forest and there was nothing new to hear. Eventually he gave up and spent his time just relaxing under trees, walking by streams and lying in shades. He was no more trying to listen to forest sounds but had surrendered to a forest dweller’s life, became part of the forest, no more separate from it but one with it.

And then one day it happened. He heard something he had never heard before. The sound of the grass growing, the sound of the trees drinking up water with their roots, the sound of green leaves yellowing, green fruits ripening, plants flowering, seasons changing. He had goose bumps all over, great joy spurted from within him as water from an underground spring, and bathed in this bliss he ran to the guru, without even waiting for the completion of the year. The guru took one look at him and then hugged him, telling him he had heard that he wanted him to hear, he had heard the sound of the forest. Pan Ku sent him back to his father with his blessings, telling him his education was complete, he would be a great king like his father.

What the boy had heard was the sound of silence – it is in silence that the grass grows, it is in silence that fruits ripen, it is in silence that seasons change. He was able to listen to the sound of silence because he himself had grown silent inside by surrendering to life, accepting it without resisting it, and by totally relaxing, letting go. And with the birth of that inner silence, he had become capable of listening – for the first time in his life. He could now listen not only to what was spoken, but also to the unspoken. He could not only listen to sounds but also to silence. Intelligence had been awakened in him, because the secret of intelligence is inner silence. Sensitivity had been awakened in him, because the secret of sensitivity is inner silence. Imagination had been awakened in him, because the secret of imagination is inner silence. Love had been awakened in him, because only with a silent mind can you really love others.

His education was now truly complete. Everything that he did will now have the quality of excellence. When he touched things, they would sparkle. When he spoke, people would run to fulfill his wishes. He would be surrounded by an aura of tranquility and stillness. His energy would now be inexhaustible. He would now be what Tibet called wang thang, a center of serene power. He would see beauty in the most ordinary things. He would radiate love. He would no more have to manipulate people because his least wish would be a command for them.

That is what happens when you become silent inside.

Says Zen: To the mind that is still, the whole universe surrenders.


Learning to listen is a great blessing on us. It is also a blessing on others. When you give your attention to others, they are healed, made whole.
Doctors need to listen to their patients, says the latest discoveries in medicine. It is as much the doctor who heals as the medicine.

Parents need to listen. Teachers need to listen. Husbands and wives need to listen.
Leaders need to listen.  It is only then that they can understand the private hells within peoples and efficiently motivate them; coach, mentor and guide them and build effective teams. It has been said by experts that leadership is 80% listening and 20% talking – probably the opposite of what is widely practiced.  

Amazing is the power of loving attention. It transforms people. If you have seen the movie Munnabhai MBBS, you know the instant transformation that happens when Munna pays loving attention to Maksood Bhai, you know the secret of Anand Bhai’s metamorphosis from a living dead man to the narrator of the movie. Like love that transforms both the lover and the loved, attention paid to others too transforms both them and you. 

Krishna listens to Arjuna and encourages him to speak more and that opens the door to wonderful teachings we call the Bhagavad Gita.

The Gita teaches us what exactly we are seeking and why we seek it. The Gita helps us discover the meaning of life, shows us the only path worth travelling for our own good and the good of the world. The Gita teaches us the difference between shreyas and preyas. The Gita helps the river of our life to flow towards the ocean as it should and not towards dreary deserts, to borrow an expression from Gurudev Tagore. The Gita can make life what it is meant to be – an utsava, a celebration, a festival,
Thus ends Chapter One of the Bhagavad Gita.

Shri krishnarpanam astu! Tavaiva vastu govinda tubhyam eva samarpaye! 


Saturday, July 11, 2020

Living Bhagavad Gita 023: Journey to the East

A series of short articles on the Bhagavad Gita for people living and working in our volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous times filled with stress and fear. This scripture born in a battlefield teaches us how to face our challenges, live our life fully, achieve excellence in whatever we do and find happiness, peace and contentment.
[Continued from the previous post.]
The name given to the first chapter of the Gita is Arjuna Vishada Yoga – the Yoga of Arjuna’s Vishada. The word vishada is translated variously as melancholy, sorrow, grief, depression, despondency, sadness, misery and so on.  
We just saw in the last article how Arjuna surrendered to melancholy, dropped his bow and arrows and collapsed into his chariot telling Krishna he will not fight, he finds no point in fighting and killing, no point in winning the kingdom, no point in pleasures or even in life itself. Kim no rajyena govinda, kim bhogair jeevitena vaa, he asks: “What good is the kingdom, Krishna, and what good are pleasures or life itself?”
All over the world today there is a lot of discussion about depression which is fast spreading and assuming the form of a wild fire that can consume everything. I was part of the faculty team giving an intensive training programme for doctors at XLRI School of Business and Human Resources and we were having a pre-programme dinner when the topic of depression came up. Several professors felt depression is fast becoming the most dangerous problem the world is facing today with a large number of lives claimed every day. This was of course in the days before the covid-19 pandemic.  
Bright young people seem to be particularly susceptible to depression. In his bestselling book The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology, Shawn Achor speaks about depression in Harvard University where happiness was the subject of his research for several years. Achor says “despite all its magnificent facilities, a wonderful faculty, and a student body made up of some of America’s (and the world’s) best and brightest, it is home to many chronically unhappy young men and women. In 2004, for instance, a Harvard Crimson poll found that as many as 4 in 5 Harvard students suffer from depression at least once during the school year, and nearly half of all students suffer from depression so debilitating they can’t function.” Shawn Achor then goes on to say that “This unhappiness epidemic is not unique to Harvard. A Conference Board survey released in January of 2010 found that only 45 percent of workers surveyed were happy at their jobs, the lowest in 22 years of polling. Depression rates today are ten times higher than they were in 1960. Every year the age threshold of unhappiness sinks lower, not just at universities but across the nation. Fifty years ago, the mean onset age of depression was 29.5 years old. Today, it is almost exactly half that: 14.5 years old.”
Speaking about depression, the Himalayan monk Om Swami says in his book When All Is Not Well: Depression and Sadness: “Depression isn’t just sadness. It is emptiness, it is misery. It is pain and nothingness at once. When you are truly depressed, you lack the ability or will to cheer yourself up. No one just ‘has depression’. You suffer from it.”
Continuing, Om Swami explains what depression feels like. “You will wake at 5, 6, maybe 7 a.m., feeling as though you had only just fallen asleep... If you don’t have to be somewhere, you could lie in bed for another three hours; too tired, too miserable and pathetic to crawl out of your bed. Or maybe you will sleep until 1 p.m., because it’s so much easier to sleep through most of the day than actually live it, and you’re so unbelievably tired anyway. You will push through the day, knowing that every hour will be a struggle and not knowing how you will feel tomorrow. People will ask what is wrong, and you will simply smile and say, ‘Nothing, I’m just tired.’ ...You will spend your days not only lost in the haze of depression, but your mind will be so consumed with these thoughts of escaping and self-destruction that you think you could explode…”
But the important question is why so many people are feeling depressed today. Why is depression spreading across the world like a deadly epidemic today?
The reasons are not too difficult to find. For one thing, our life has become too fast. We are obsessed with speed – in real life as well as in virtual life. We have become intolerant of slowness. And stillness? Of course, we have grown strangers to it. We have forgotten that all that is beautiful in life comes from stillness. Creativity comes from stillness. Intuition comes from stillness. Art and music come from stillness. The essence of dance is not movement but the stillness that is its substratum, from which arises and into which it goes back. All inventions and discoveries are made in moments of stillness. Intuition comes from stillness, insights come from stillness, healing comes from stillness. Medical professionals have long recognized that silence plays an important part in healing. For instance, the experience of even a little real silence can produce physiological changes that neutralize the effects of stress.“When you are still, you find that your perception of life is at its purest,” says Ron Rothbun in his book The Way Is Within.
We are all familiar with the story of Archimedes who ran through the streets of Athens shouting eureka, eureka. The Athenian ruler had given him an assignment. Someone had gifted the ruler a crown and he wanted to find out if the crown was of pure gold or some alloy had been mixed with the gold. The specific gravity of gold was known then, but no one knew how to measure the mass of an irregular object like the crown. Archimedes was the best scientist of the day and he struggled for weeks to find a solution to the problem. If only there was a way to measure the mass of the crown! Then you could decide whether the crown was pure gold or not.
Eventually Archimedes gave up his struggles admitting defeat and sank into a tub for a relaxed bath. It was then, in that moment when there were not struggles in his mind and the mind had become still with his acceptance of defeat, that he noticed water spilling over from the tub as his body sank into the tub. That very instant insight was born, a great discovery happened: the mass of water that spilled out was equal to the mass of his body that had submerged in the water. The quantity of water that flows out when a substance is immersed in a vessel full of water is equal to the mass of the substance.
In that still moment, his problem had been solved and climbing out of the tub he ran through the streets of Athens shouting that word that has now become part of every language in the world: eureka, eureka!
We all have had the experience of something, a name, we had forgotten coming back to us the moment we give up the struggles and the mind becomes still.
All science and all technology is the product of still moments. All that is precious to humanity are products of inner stillness, of the mind is that is empty of restless thoughts. The saying that the empty mind is the devil’s workshop is completely wrong. The empty mind is God’s workshop!
Indian culture says the universe is born of God’s empty mind. The Taittiriya Upanishad says, “Sa tapo’tapyata. Sa tapas taptvaa idam sarvam asrjata. Yadidam kincha.” “He did tapas. Having done tapas, he created all this. He created all that exists.” It is from the mind of God that has become empty because of tapas that the universe comes into being.      
There is story told about the world famous painter Raphael and an unknown woodcutter. One morning as the woodcutter was going to the forest to cut wood, he saw Raphael sitting by a lake, lazily picking up pebbles and dropping them into the lake. The woodcutter shook his head in disapproval – what a waste of time! – and went on his way. As the woodcutter was returning home with his load of firewood, he saw Raphael still sitting there picking up pebbles and throwing them into the lake! What an idiot, he thought! I have done a whole day’s work and the moron is still sitting there and throwing pebbles into the lake!
We know today that such a woodcutter existed because of Raphael, one of the greatest painters the world has known.
In the ancient Indian tradition, in fact all over the world, we began everything with a few moments of silence, of mental stillness, of prayer. But today stillness, and even slowness, is looked down upon. It is one of the greatest casualties of the age of speed.      
The virtues of slowness are unlimited, says Carl Honore in his book In praise of slowness. In his book Slowing Down to the Speed of Life, Richard Carlson says more or less the same thing. And it is that slowness that we have rejected in favour of speed! Faster, faster, ever faster, says our culture!
Slowing down and experiencing stillness is one of our basic needs – it is as essential as breathing. Our brains go completely haywire unless we experience slowness and stillness on a regular basis. Which is exactly what is not happening today. And that is taking a heavy toll on young minds today, especially gifted young minds, leading to depression and all that depression leads to. The philosophy aaraam hai haraam has to go. Laziness is bad, sluggishness is bad, sloth and apathy are bad, but relaxation is not. It is the most healing thing most of us know, apart from sleep. In fact sleep is a form of relaxation too. The second highest form of relaxation, after meditation which is the highest form of relaxation in existence.
We need to spend more time ‘plucking daisies’, we need to spend more time climbing mountains, we need to spend more time unfocused and in ‘purposeless’ activities, like Raphael picking up pebbles and throwing them into the lake. We need to give our souls time to catch up with us. That is the medicine for fighting the insane obsession with speed that drives us away from our own calm inner centre.  
A European explorer was in the Amazon forests, exploring the flora and fauna there. He had hired a supervisor and the supervisor had hired native people to help him in his work. One day passed the explorer and the natives hurrying from one thing to another, then another day and then yet another day. On the fourth day when the explorer was ready to start he found not one native was ready. When enquired, the supervisor gave him an incredibly beautiful reply. He told the explorer: they are giving time for their souls to catch up with them!
We all need to give time for our souls to catch up with us.  
One of the most beautiful Chuang Tzu stories ever says:
The prince discovered when he returned from the top of the mountain that he had mislaid the Priceless Pearl up on the mountain.
He sent his generals and their armies to search for it, but they could not find it. He employed Huang-Ti, the vehement debater, to find the Pearl, but Huang-Ti was unable to find it. He sent his skilled gardeners and his artisans to find it, but they too came home empty-handed.
Finally, in despair, having tried everyone else, he sent Purposeless to the mountain, and Purposeless found the pearl immediately.
"How odd it is", mused the Prince, "that it was Purposeless who found it!"
We are all birds meant to fly in the open sky. Those who have known the truth, the Upanishad rishis for instance, call us amritasya putraah – children of the Immortal, each one of us a divine spark. The Mundaka Upanishad tells us: yathaa sudeeptaat paavakaad visphulingaah sahasrashah prabhavante saroopaah, tathaa aksharaad vividhaah somya bhaavaah prajaayante tatra chaivaapi yanti: Just as sparks in their thousands are born from a roaring fire, each of the same nature as the fire itself, so do, dear one, beings come forth from the Imperishable One and return to It. [Mu.Up.2.1]   
No, we are not meant to spend our lives hopping about on the ground searching for worms but to stretch out our wings, soar up and enjoy the bliss of the boundless skies – the boundless skies of consciousness. We are meant for the bhooma, the vast, and not for the alpa, the small. The owl will be satisfied with the rotting body of a mouse, but not the phoenix which will touch no food other than certain sacred fruits and drink only from the clearest springs. The chakora lives on moonbeams, says Indian mythology, and will touch nothing else. The way man lives today is like the phoenix being forced to live on rotten mice and the chakora being forced to live on the food that pigs eat.
By and large, man has forgotten the higher. We have become flotsams with no roots in our spiritual selves. We are living not the philosophy of the rising son as we did in the past but the philosophy of the setting sun. Frustration and depression are bound to be there.        
As we saw, the vishada that happened to Arjuna in the battlefield is called by different names such as melancholy, sorrow, grief, depression, despondency, sadness, misery and so on
But there is a different name for it. India calls it vairagya, dispassion, and considers it sacred. Vairagya is the first step in the journey to the east, the journey to the land where the sun rises, the journey to the source of all light. Light as bright as the light of a thousand suns, light before which all other lights pale.
There is mantra that is traditionally chanted when we do arati, ritually show burning lamps before a sacred idol. Na tatra sooryo bhaati na chandrataarakam nemaa vidyuto bhaanti kutoyam agnih; tam eva bhaantam anubhaaati saravam tasya bhaasaa sarvam idam vibhaati, says the mantra. “The sun does not shine there, nor the moon or the stars. How then will this fire? That alone shines and everything else shines after it, reflecting its light.” The journey to that source of all light begins with what Arjuna is experiencing now and that is why India considers vairagya sacred.   
This is something that happens only to sensitive people. Much of the time the kind of questions Arjuna asks, the feelings Arjuna feels, come to us from a great shower of blessing that descends upon us. It is ishwra-anugraha, the grace of God, says India.
The rishi of the Svetashvatara Upanishad declares boldly and unhesitatingly:
vedaaham etaṃ puruṣhaṃ mahaantam aaditya-varṇaṃ tamasaḥ parastaat;
tam eva viditvaa atimṛtyum eti naanyaḥ panthaa vidyate'yanaaya. Sv. Up. 3.8
“I know the Great Purusha, He who is luminous like the sun and beyond darkness. Only by knowing Him does one go beyond death. There is no other path worth travelling!” 
Vairagya is the invitation to begin our journey on the only path worth travelling.
It is not only Arjuna who has grace showered on him as he stands in the chariot driven by Krishna in the middle of the two armies in Kurukshertra, but all of us, the entire humanity. Because it is in response to this vairagya he felt that the Bhagavad Gita was born on a shukla paksha ekadashi day, on the eleventh day of the bright lunar fortnight in the month of Margashirsha, more than five thousand and one hundred years ago. 
A well known story from the Mahabharata says that both Arjuna and Duryodhana went to meet Krishna seeking his help before the war began. Duryodhana was the first to enter Krishna’s bed chamber and he went and took a seat by the head of the bed. A few moments later Arjuna entered the chamber and he too could have gone and taken a seat at the head of the bed as Duryodhana had done. Instead, he went and stood at Krishna’s feet. When Krishna opened his eyes a few moments later it was naturally Arjuna who was standing at the foot of the bed that he saw first. As we all know, it was on him that Krishna’s grace fell in the form of his presence with him during the war and as his driver.
Krishna is grace. The greatest possible grace! With Krishna on your side, the impossible becomes possible. With Krishna on your side miracles happen. Mookam karoti vaachaalam pangum landhayate girim, yat-kripaa tam aham vande parama-ananda-maadhavam, says one of the shlokas traditionally chanted before the study of the Gita: “I bow down to Krishna, who is supreme bliss itself, with whose grace the speechless become eloquent and the lame crosses over mountains.”
The choice that Arjuna made in Krishna’s bedchamber, rejecting the Narayani Sena, rejecting the power of a mighty army and choosing just Krishna, Krishna’s grace, it is that choice that is now showering on him in the form of the Bhagavad Gita. All we have to do is to make that choice, everything else happens by itself. That is why Krishna concludes his teachings in the Gita by saying:
sarvadharmaan parityajya maam ekam sharanam vraja; aham twaa sarvapaapebhyo mokshayishyaami maa shuchah BG 18.66
“Abandoning all dharmas, take refuge in me alone; I will liberate you from all sins. Have no grief.”   
Duryodhana missed Krishna’s grace throughout his life. After the war was over, Gandhari curses Krishna saying he could have and should have helped her son but did not. But grace can shower on you only when you are open to it. If a pot remains upside down when the sky showers rains, not a drop will go inside even if an entire season passes. In fact, the only thing you need to deserve grace is openness to it, receptivity to it, which is what Duryodhana did not have.  There were a thousand occasions in his life when he could have taken refuge in Krishna, but rejects every single one of them.
There is a famous Indian story about a beggar who was crossing a bridge, walking with a stick in hand. The story says that Goddess Parvati takes pity on the poor beggar and requests Shiva to bless him with wealth. Shiva says there is no point because even if he gives wealth to him, he will not get it because he is not open to his blessing. But the heart of the goddess is the heart of a mother and she insists that the man be given wealth. Shiva agrees and a treasure chest appears on the bridge. The moment the chest appears on the bridge, the beggar has a thought: “I am young now and I can see well, but what will happen to me when I grow old and lose my eyesight? I must practice walking blind right from now.”  With that thought, he closes he eyes and walking with the help of the stick crosses the rest of the bridge, missing the treasure completely!
Throughout his life Duryodhana behaved like that beggar.
Whereas Arjuna chose Krishna lifetimes ago. The Mahabharata tells us they have been friends across lifetimes, meditating in the Himalayas together.
There is a mantra in the Mundaka Upanishad that my teacher Swami Dayananda Saraswati was very fond of. During the years when I was in the Sandeepany Gurukula and learning timeless Indian wisdom from him, he must have quoted this mantra hundreds of times.
pareekshya lokaan karmachitaan braahmano nirvedam aayaan naastyakrtah krtena tadvijnanartham sa gurum evabhigacched samitpaanih shrotriyam brahmanishtham. Mu.Up.1.2.12 
“Having examined all in the world that is gained through actions, after attaining nirveda and realizing that the uncreated cannot be achieved through actions, let [him who has thus become] a brahmana, approach with samit in hand a guru who is learned [in the traditional spiritual lore] and rooted in the Brahman.”
The soul of the entire Indian spiritual culture could be found in that one mantra. Before approaching the guru and being qualified for his grace, we must developed nirveda towards all that can be attained through our own power, through our actions. Nirveda means vairagya – what Arjuna is experiencing at the moment. It is when this vairagya is born in your heart that you become a brahmana – one whose entire focus is on  attaining the Brahman, one whose concentration now is only on attaining the spiritual goal. And then he should go to his guru with samit in hand. Samit is kindling used in sacrificial fire. Carrying that to your guru is the symbol of your joyful willingness to serve the master.
Duryodhana is still far from the nirveda the Upanishad talks about. He is not willing to surrender to Krishna and therefore is not ready for the grace. He has not yet developed what makes you a brahmana ­– the all consuming urge to abandon everything else and walk the path of shreyas to reach the land of the ultimate good, the land of light, having reached which you never return – yad gatvaa na nivartante. He is still very much with the loka of wealth, power, position, sensual pleasures and so on.
Arjuna has developed that urge and he is ready. That is why he is asking, “What good is the kingdom, Krishna, and what good are pleasures or life itself?” The vishada he is experiencing at the moment is the clear sign of that.
All vishadas, depressions, are not bad, some are good. Some can take you to the higher. They come to you from divine grace. With them begins our journey to the east, the greatest journey we will ever make.

Living Bhagavad Gita 022_When Tamas Takes Over

A series of short articles on the Bhagavad Gita for people living and working in our volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous times filled with stress and fear. This scripture born in a battlefield teaches us how to face our challenges, live our life fully, achieve excellence in whatever we do and find happiness, peace and contentment.

[Continued from the previous post]

Sanjaya said: Having spoken thus in the battlefield, Arjuna sank down into the chariot dropping his bow and arrows, his mind heavy with grief. BG 1.47

Chapter One of the Bhagavad Gita began with a question by Dhritarashtra about what his sons and the sons of Pandu did in the battlefield of Kurukshetra and now we have come to the last verse of the chapter in which Sanjaya tells the blind king that Arjuna has sat down in the chariot overcome by great compassion that has risen in his heart, refusing to fight.
The journey of the Gita which is a journey into light begins with tamas, darkness – Dhritarashtra is tamas. We cannot help but wonder how appropriate this is because all journeys have to begin from where we are and we are in darkness now. The purpose of the Gita is to take us from the darkness – spiritual darkness – in which we are now to light. Tamaso maa jyotir gamaya, lead me from darkness to light, says one of the oldest prayers known to mankind, a prayer that we find the Vedic people of India making to the unnamed power that presides over our lives. Gita is about this journey from darkness to light.
The Bhagavad Gita shows us how we can travel from darkness to light. Krishna tells us it is for each one of us to make this journey from darkness to light, it is for us to pull ourselves out of the abyss we have fallen into. Uddharet aatmanaa aatmaanam: Lead yourself by your own self, he says in the Gita. If we are in the gutter it is because of ourselves and it is for us to climb out of that gutter – that is what the Gita tells us, that is Krishna’s way. As the greatest leadership teacher in the history of humanity, Krishna knows that without our will to get out of the mess we are in we will never come out of it.      
The darkness Dhritarashtra finds himself in when he asks that question in the first verse of the Gita was of his own making – others certainly aided him in that but his role in its creation is no less important than anyone else’s. From the television serials on the epic, many of us tend to blame Duryodhana and Shakuni for the tragedy of the Mahabharata, but Dhritarashtra was the king, the man invested with all power, and he was also Duryodhana’s father. Just as a modern organizational head is ultimately responsible for whatever happens in that organization, the responsibility for the tragedy of the Mahabharata in the final analysis is his, more than that of anyone else.    
It is interesting that this blind king because of whom India fought its greatest ever war was a biological son of Sage Vyasa, the author of the Mahabharata, the compiler of the Vedas, author of the Puranas and arguably the greatest sage our land has known – a fact that proves greatness and wisdom cannot be inherited but have to be acquired. As Gibran said:
Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
Each one of us is a child of Life. In our endless journey, each one of us has had thousands of mothers and fathers – they are the gates through which we enter this world but we do not originate in them. The Mahabharata says our relationships are like the relationships of two logs meeting in the vast ocean, now brought together and now again separated: yathaa kaashtham cha kaastham cha samaayetaam mahodadhau, sametya cha vimaayetaam, evam bandhu-samaagamah.  We are all alike eternal sojourners in this vast ocean of life. And in that beginningless and endless journey, each one of us undergoes endless experiences, including our experiences with our current parents, react to those experiences in our own unique ways and are shaped to become what we are now. Some of us end up as predominantly sattvic, some others as rajasic and yet others as tamasic.  Ultimately the responsibility for what we have become rests on us. [And so long as we blame others for what we, divine sparks the Upanishads calls amritasya putraah, children of immortality, have become, there is no possibility of change.] 
There is no way gunas can be inherited from our parents, as we see in the case of the four sons of Maharshi Vyasa. His son Brahmarshi Shuka is beyond all gunas – an enlightened man who has become gunatita. Vidura, another biological son of his, is predominantly sattvic and Pandu is rajasic. Dhritarashtra, the blind king with whose name the Bhagavad Gita begins, is deeply tamasic. In fact, he could be used as an example to explain what tamas means as I have done numerous times in my lectures to the business school students I have taught and the corporate officers I have trained during sessions on understanding self and others, motivating self and others and so on. It is difficult to find a better example for tamas in the Mahabharata than Dhritarashtra.
Tamasic people cannot create – creativity is the opposite of tamas. But they can destroy. They are not stupid, but have a kind of intelligence that Krishna names tamasic intelligence. Krishna gives us a definition of tamasic intelligence, tamasic buddhi, in the eighteenth chapter of the Gita:
adharmam dharmam iti yaa manyate tamasaavritaa, sarvaarthaan vipareetaamshcha buddhih saa paartha taamasee.
The intelligence which is clothed in darkness and sees adharma as dharma and views all things as the opposite of what they are, that intelligence is tamasic.  BG 18.32
Ruthless, cunning, manipulative, insensitive to the sufferings of others, totally self-centered and joyless, tamasic people try to doggedly hold on to whatever they have. They cling to things, cling to their power, positions and privilege, refusing to let go, ad Dhritarashtra does.
In his international best seller Illusions: the Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah, Richard Bach speaks of a village of creatures living at the bottom of a crystal river. He says:
Once there lived a village of creatures along the bottom of a great crystal river. The current of the river swept silently over them all – young and old, rich and poor, good and evil, the current going its own way, knowing only its own crystal self. Each creature in its own manner clung tightly to the twigs and rocks of the river bottom, for clinging was their way of life, and resisting the current what each had learned from birth.”
These creatures at the bottom of the river that Richard Bach speaks of are excellent examples for tamasic people. These insecure people are like baby birds in a nest, refusing to let go of the security of the nest and thus denying themselves the freedom and joyfulness of the boundless skies. Dhritarashtra is like those small creatures at the bottom of the river, like those baby birds who refuse to flutter their wings, let go and take to the skies. The name Dhritarashtra can mean one who holds the rashtra, the kingdom, together. It can also equally well mean one who holds on to the rashtra, the kingdom, one who clings to the kingdom, to the throne and crown, to power, as Mahabharata’s Dhritarashtra definitely does.
Continuing Bach’s story:
“But one creature said at last, “I am tired of clinging. Though I cannot see it with my eyes, I trust that the current knows where it is going. I shall let go, and let it take me where it will. Clinging, I shall die of boredom.”
The other creatures laughed and said, “Fool! Let go, and that current you worship will throw you tumbled and smashed across the rocks, and you will die quicker than boredom.”
But the one heeded them not, and taking a breath did let go, and at once was tumbled and smashed by the current across the rocks.
Yet in time, as the creature refused to cling again, the current lifted him free from the bottom, and he was bruised and hurt no more.
And the creatures downstream, to whom he was a stranger, cried, “See a miracle! A creature like ourselves, yet he flies! See the Messiah, come to save us all!”
And the one carried in the current said, “I am no more Messiah than you. The river delights to lift us free, if only we dare let go. Our true work is this voyage, this adventure.”
But they cried the more, “Saviour!” all the while clinging to the rocks, and when they looked again he was gone and they were left alone making legends of a Saviour.”
Tamasic people just cannot let go. They are incapable of doing that. Unfortunately without letting go of the alpa, the small, there is no bhooma, the big.
But the tamasic just cannot let go. Clinging because of their insecurities, the tamasic live a life of fear, a life of dread, seeing threats everywhere, afraid of what they have being snatched away from them any moment. They become paranoid.
There is a beautiful Taoist story about a phoenix and an owl:
Hui Tzu was prime minister of Liang. He had what he believed to be inside information that Chuang Tzu [the great Taoist master] coveted his post, and was plotting to supplant him.
When Chuang Tzu came to visit Liang, the prime minister send out police to arrest him, But although they searched for three days and nights, they could not find him.
Meanwhile Chuang Tzu presented himself to Hui Tzu of his own accord, and said: “Have you heard about the bird that lives in the south – the phoenix that never grows old? This undying phoenix rises out of the south sea and flies to the sea of the north, never alighting except on certain sacred trees. He will touch no food but the most exquisite rare fruit, and he drinks only from the clearest springs. Once an owl chewing an already half decayed rat saw the phoenix fly over. Looking up he screeched with alarm and clutched the dead rat to himself in fear and dismay.”
“Prime minister,” asked Chuang Tzu, “why are you so frantic, clinging to your ministry and screeching at me in dismay?”
Had Dhritarashtra cared about the good of his subjects as an Indian king was expected to rather than clinging to power, had he cared even for his own son’s good, the war would not have happened. He should have handed power back to Yudhishthira, whose it really was as per the conventions of the day since his father Pandu was the last king of the Bharata’s and Dhritarashtra was no more than a caretaker. Had he done that, he wouldn’t have had to weep at the end of the war that all his one hundred sons have been killed, that Bhima did not spare even one of them.   

The Mahabharata tells us that when Sage Vyasa came to his sister-in-law Ambika to produce a child through the ancient custom of niyoga as ordered by his mother, seeing his ascetic form she closed her eyes and that is why her son was born. This story is symbolic of Dhritarashtra’s mother turning away from light, closing her eyes to light, rejecting light at the moment of his conception, for Vyasa was light, wisdom, goodness and spirituality at the highest level.

Just as his mother did at the moment of his conception, throughout his life the blind king turned away from light and remained a prisoner of darkness, of the asuri sampada that the Gita speaks of.

 It was not for the first time that in ancient India, or even in the history of the Bharata dynasty itself, that primogeniture has been overlooked in favour of competency. Bharata himself, after whom the dynasty is named, rejected all his nine sons born to his three queens since he did not find them ‘appropriate’, competent enough, and accepted a rank outsider called Bhumanyu as his successor. Dhritarashtra’s own grandfather, Emperor Shantanu was not the eldest son of his father Emperor Pratipa – he was his youngest son. Pratipa’s eldest son was Devapi who on his own gave up inheritance because he had leprosy and became an ascetic. Devapi’s younger brother Bahlika abandoned his right to the Kuru kingdom and went to live with his maternal uncle in what we call the Balkh country today and eventually inherited that kingdom. That is how the crown came to Shantanu.  

The rule that someone who suffered from a physical defect or disease was not fit to rule was based on the ancient understanding that kingship was a responsibility and not a privilege and to be fully effective a king – a leader – should have all his faculties at his command so that he can understand the situation personally and take the right decision. Dhritarashtra was denied the throne based because it was felt by those in power that a blind king will not be able to fully comprehend challenging situations and if he failed to do so and took wrong decisions on important issues, the kingdom would suffer. One of the important expectations in those days was that the leader led from the front, particularly in the battlefield, and here a blind man was at a disadvantage, though exceptions to this rule did exist.  

Rejecting Dhritarashtra, Pandu was made king and he proved himself to be superbly effective. But perhaps Pandu who was very sensitive towards others felt guilty about ruling as king while his elder brother was alive – Ramayana’s Bharata refused to sit on the throne even though according to Valmiki the kingdom was his by birth since Dasharatha had married his mother Kaikeyi by giving the kingdom as rajyashulka, by promising that her son would inherit the throne. Pandu eventually gave up the throne and went to live with his wives in the forest as an ascetic, though there may be other factors that contributed to that decision. From Dhritarashtra’s subsequent behaviour, we clearly see that he had more than ordinary greed for power – power was the most important thing for him, the  be-all and end-all of his existence, power for himself and his future generations.

Like most power hungry people, he had no respect for anything other than power. Once a great rishi of awesome spiritual powers called Baka Dalbhya came to him asking for a few cows. It was a common thing in those days for rishis to approach kings and request for cows and kings usually gave not one or two but hundreds and sometimes thousands of cows to them. But what Dhritarashtra did was truly shocking – he pointed out a few dead cows and asked Rishi Dalbhya to take them – that’s all he would give. As a consequence of this action of the king, says the Mahabharata, the entire Kuru kingdom suffered from terrible draughts and famines that lasted for twelve years and a vast section of the population died from hunger, thirst and starvation. Dhritarashtra accepted his mistake and made amends only when he realized Baka Dalbhya’s incredible spiritual powers.

Power is perhaps man’s greatest temptation. Because with power comes everything else. In modern political organizations, in industry and business, in fact everywhere, we can find people clinging to power whether they are good as leaders or not, and appointing their own people in positions of power – what we call nepotism in English and bhai-bhatijavad in Hindi. Many organizations have died sad deaths because of this.

The Dhritarashtra Vilapa, a long soliloquy by the blind king, is at the very beginning of the Mahabharata. In the vilapa the blind king recalls one by one sixty-eight occasions when he lost all hope of victory – the verses describing these incidents all begin with the words yadaa shrausham, when I heard..., and end in ...tadaa naaham vijayaaya naashamse, then I no more hoped for victory. Practically all these occasions speak of some success or another of the Pandavas – like their escape from the lacquer house in which they were supposed to be killed, Arjuna winning the archery contest for wedding Draupadi, the Panchalas becoming allies of the Pandavas and so on. He sees each of these as occasions that destroyed his hopes.

The Pandavas are really not ‘others’ – they are the children of his brother, and they gave him the same love and respect that they had for their father; but the world of the tamasic is very small and have no place even for one’s nephews. That is a major difference between the sattvic and the tamasic – for the sattvic, the whole earth is their family, as is said in Sanskrit vasudhaiva kutumbam, whereas for the tamasic, their family is too small, and even their own nephews are not part of it.

As his father and as the caretaker king, Dhritarashtra had all the power he needed to stop Duryodhana’s evil ways but never once does he take a strong stand against him, newer a stand that will really stop him. True he did speak against him a few times, but never with all his authority and never in such a way that his son will not be able to go against him.
The face of Dhritarashtra we see in the Mahabharata most of the time is of an absolutely shameless old man who does no more lip service to the children of his brother who are the rightful heirs to the throne. Even in the Udyoga Parva of the epic when the war has become imminent, the message he sent to the righteous Pandavas is truly unbelievable in its meanness: he tells him since they are lovers of peace they should not wage a war against him or even demand their rights, but should go somewhere else and ask someone else for some land as charity!

It is this face tamas that we see in the Sabha Parva of the epic too where the dice game happens. It is possible that Dhritarashtra is the happiest man in the dice hall every time Yudhishthira loses a game. It is his voice alone that we hear at these times and every time his question is the same: jitam mayaa, have I won it? He is asking about what Yudhishthira has staked and lost, including Draupadi as the last stake. There is great thrill in his voice as he asks that question every time.

It is this Dhritarashtra that Arjuna does not want to dethrone because he is his uncle; and also because in that process he will have to slay in battle Bhishma and Drona. Arjuna’s vision has temporarily become clouded by blind mamata, which is form of tamas. But Krishna clearly sees what Arjuna does not see: the danger of surrendering the world to Dhritarashtra’s philosophy. He can see the dangers of having tamasic people in positions of power.

When tamas takes over individuals, they are finished. When it takes over organizations, they are finished. When a culture is taken over tamas, when a nation is taken over tamas, it is finished.  

The Nobel Prize winning book The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass discusses how Germany plunged into darkness under Hitler. Bhishma Sahni’s Tamas brilliantly shows what happened in the days of Partition as tamas conquered us.


As Arjuna collapses in his chariot surrendering to a dark wave of tamas perhaps for the first time in his life, his mind and body drained of all energy, his will deserting him, Krishna shows him how to walk out of the blinding darkness he is in now and reach the world of light: of victory, joyfulness, prosperity and glory.

That glorious path is the Bhagavad Gita.


Living Bhagavad Gita 024: The Miracle of Listening

A series of short articles on the Bhagavad Gita for people living and working in our volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous tim...