We have no way of knowing if Vyasa divided the Gita into chapters and verses. It is likely he did not, because the demarcation between the chapters is not always detectable, as is the case in this chapter. The first verse is a logical continuation of the last two verses of chapter sixteen. Without them as context, it lacks logic and relevance to some degree. So here they are. Krishna says:
“He who casts aside the injunctions of the scriptures, following the impulse of desire, attains neither perfection nor happiness, nor the Supreme Goal. Therefore the standards of the scriptures should be your guide in determining what should be done and what should not be done. Knowing what the scriptural injunctions prescribe, you should perform action here in this world” (16:23-24).
Sacrifice and faith
Now we are ready to begin chapter seventeen. In response to the two verses just cited:
Arjuna said: Those who cast aside the prescriptions of the scriptures, doing sacrifice with faith, what is their condition: sattwa, rajas or tamas? (17:1).
Two words here need defining: Yajna and Shraddha. In this chapter yajna means not just ritualistic offering (sacrifice) but any kind of worship or spiritual action. Shraddha always means faith, but in the sense of an intuition-based conviction, not just a mere unquestioning belief. So Arjuna is presenting us with the picture of a person who believes wholeheartedly in the efficacy of spiritual action or practice, but who disregards the principles of spiritual tradition as set forth in the scriptures or teachings of the enlightened ones. Such a one simply goes ahead and does what he thinks is the best way to approach spiritual life, picking and choosing what he does and how he does it. This is not what Krishna has been saying to do. So Arjuna wants to know if faith, or belief that the actions will produce the desired effect, will compensate for the disregard of the shastras (scriptures). In other words, he is thinking of the type of person that in this century claims to be “spiritual, not religious.” Can that really work, Arjuna wants to know. What is the guna (quality) of such faith?
Krishna has already said that: “One acts according to one’s own prakriti–even the wise man does so” (3:33). He expands on that in this connotation:
The Holy Lord said: Threefold is the embodied ones’ faith inherent within their nature: the sattwic, the rajasic and the tamasic. So hear of this (17:2).
So faith does not determine the quality of the person–the person’s interior character (swabhava) determines the type of faith he has. That may seem obvious, but for some reason in the West we continually reverse cause and effect, so I want to make a point of it.
Krishna has more to say about this:
The faith of each one is according to his nature. A man consists of his faith–he is what his faith is (17:3).
Shraddhamayo ’yam purusho–a person is made/formed of faith. Yo yacchraddhah sa eva sah–what his faith is: he is. And if he has no faith? He is nothing. So we can determine the basic character of a person by his faith. Krishna will now tell us how.
The sattwic worship the gods; the rajasic worship yakshas and rakshasas; the others, the tamasic men, worship the spirits of the departed and hosts of nature spirits [bhutas] (17:4).
Several types of beings are mentioned here and should be defined. We will rely on our old friend, A Brief Sanskrit Glossary.
Devas are “shining ones;” in the evolutionary hierarchy they are semi-divine or celestial beings with great powers, and therefore “gods.” Sometimes they are called demi-gods. Most devas are the demigods presiding over various powers of material and psychic nature.
Yakshas are of two kinds: semidivine beings whose king is Kubera, the lord of wealth; or a kind of ghost, goblin, or demon. The rajasic worship the first kind to gain material advantage, and worship the second kind to get them to harm those standing in their way of material gain.
Rakshas are also of two kinds: semidivine, benevolent beings, or cannibal demons or goblins, enemies of the gods. The rajasic worship them for the same reasons as they worship the yakshas.
Pretas are ghosts–spirits of the dead. Sometimes these are just wandering earthbound “tramp” souls, but they may be famous people or one’s own ancestors.
Bhutas are of two types: some are subhuman nature spirits or “elementals,” but some are earthbound human spirits: ghosts. Bhutas may be either positive or negative.
Ganas are usually part of groups of spirits that wander together–mostly of various types. The term is also used as a kind of “miscellaneous” category for entities that have not otherwise been identified. A gana may be benevolent or malevolent, but is usually disorderly, chaotic, and wild in the sense of untamed or unruly, and potentially dangerous (hazardous). A gana’s appearance is usually deformed, repulsive, or frightening.
Although Krishna speaks of “worship” in connection with these beings, it means any kind of intentional supernatural involvement or contact. This should be kept in mind.
It is not enough to just move into the world of the invisible; we must know where we are going to end up in that world. And we will certainly end up in the worlds of the kind of beings we habitually have contact and interchange with. Inconceivably vast as the physical universe is, the astral world is inconceivably larger than the physical plane. Not all beings in the astral realms can be contacted by human beings, but innumerable ones of numberless classifications or levels of evolution can be–often to the detriment or destruction of the human. Yet, since each one of us acts according to his dominant nature, so it will be in our supernatural involvement.
Since their very nature orients them toward higher realms of consciousness and impels them to evolve upward into and even beyond those realms, Krishna tells us that the sattwic worship the devas, whose nature is light. From deva we get the word “divine.” In its highest sense it means God the Absolute. In a secondary sense it means all who consciously dwell in and reflect the divine light as “partakers of the divine nature” (II Peter 1:4). These include the various forms of God that are manifestations of the infinite divine attributes as well as the beings known as gods who wield divine powers for the assistance of those beneath them on the evolutionary ladder. Such beings include angels, saints, departed masters, and a host of other holy helpers. Since their entire will and consciousness is focused on God, interchange with them will elevate our consciousness toward the Divine as well. Communion with them will strengthen our aspirations toward God-realization.
The rajasic are quite different. Hungering for material things (including power) which they regard as the only source of happiness, pleasure, or fulfillment, they resort to gods and spirits that are ego- and greed-oriented like themselves. Such gods demand offerings of various kinds and, though they conceal this fact from their devotees, at the time of death those who worship or traffic with them will be taken into their worlds and made their servant-slaves. Some will be quickly shunted back to earthly rebirth to again become their devotees and supply them with what they want, but they can be kept imprisoned in those worlds for ages, as well. The awful thing about this is that most of the time these gods really have little power, and it is the offering of their worshippers that gives them their power. So in reality it is the gods that are dependent on the worshippers, not the other way round, however it may seem.
The yakshas and rakshas are divided into higher and lower types, but all are in bondage to ignorance and rebirth in some form, and contact with them can never really work to the ultimate good of the human who does so. The higher yakshas and rakshas are much more evolved than humans and can do things for them on a mundane level. They have good will, but still look upon humans as servants and demand offerings of some kind. They are never altruistic, and do not consider that they should be. They look upon themselves as merchants or suppliers of services. They can be angered and refuse to give the requested help, and often (very often) wreak vengeance on those who anger them or refuse them something. They can make life miserable or even terminate it–all according to the karma incurred by their petitioners. And this is how it is with the “positive” ones!
Some yakshas and rakshas are degraded, demonic beings, avid for worship, gifts, and power, lying and deceitful, always scheming to injure and deceive those who approach them, though for a while they seem benevolent in order to ensnare their devotees. Their only intention is to delude and plunder. Filled with pride they despise those that approach them and from the initial contact intend to lie and loot them. These, too, will harm and destroy those that offend them. Both these types, higher and lower, are the gods worshipped by greedy, egoic religionists of all types–some quite openly deal with such beings while others do so in a secret or deceitful form. And of course these entities continually introduce themselves as gods, saints, and great masters. And frankly, a large percentage of “gurus” are very like yakshas and rakshas.
The tamasic naturally gravitate to the pretas and bhutas. The pretas are the spirits of the dead. Ancestor worshippers and spiritualists openly seek out these spirits. Besides the pretas are the bhutas that range from earthbound ghosts to elementals and subhuman nature spirits. Some of these are deluded, evil, or just plain stupid. Some of them, being completely outside the stream of human evolution, do not really know what is going on, but play with humans the way tame animals would. Nothing good can come of any of this.
Many of these spirits demand offerings of all sorts and they have a very real power to do harm, and a predisposition to do so. Some even kill human beings, not realizing that they are doing so. Air elementals often urge people to jump out into the air, thinking they will fly with them. Water elementals urge swimmers to keep swimming further and further from shore until they become exhausted and drown–though that is not the elementals’ intention. Fire elementals urge people–and especially children–to play with fire in hopes of a conflagration, though destruction is not their purpose. Earth elementals urge people to continually go underground and often try to keep them there by cave-ins and other mishaps. Again, they have no concept of death, so the elementals have no malicious intent. They just want to be friends.
There is no use warning the rajasic and tamasic away from their playmates. It is their nature to interact with them. Krishna is just giving us this information so if we have any pockets of rajas or tamas lingering in us we will be warned and not indulge them. Mostly he is wanting to show us how we can determine the guna of a person or a religion by scrutinizing their supernatural contact. What about those that have no supernatural contact of any kind? We should consider them non-existent, spiritually speaking.
Demonic asceticism and discipline
As just pointed out, negative and foolish spirits demand many kinds of sacrifice, some of them being insane forms of asceticism that destroy body, mind, and soul. Hating their dupes, and knowing that the body is meant to be an instrument of enlightenment, they urge them to harm this invaluable gift of God. Besides that, many demonic people are filled with self-loathing and express it through destructive asceticism. Finally, there are those of whom Krishna has said: “These malignant people hate me in their own and in others’ bodies” (16:18).
It is with this in mind that Krishna continues:
Those who practice extreme austerities not ordained by the scriptures, accompanied by hypocrisy and egotism along with the force of desire and passion, senselessly torturing in the body the entire aggregates of the elements, and me within the body, know them to be of demonic resolves (17:5-6).
In every religion we find this in some form, and almost always it is praised and considered a proof of sanctity, although it is actually evidence of delusion and psychosis. This is rampant in India, so much so that I do not even know where to begin or end in recounting it. Since I hope none of you will develop mental illness and become deluded yogis of this type, I will not bother you with further exposition.
But since part of the next chapter of the Gita deals with food, I will name some of the foolish and harmful dietary ideas enjoined by contemporary Indian yogis who should know better, especially in the climatic conditions of India.
Prohibition of salt. Salt is essential to correct brain function. Lack of salt produces mental and physical debility, which is why sensible employers supply salt tablets to workers who perspire a great deal while at their job. One hellish summer I was in Benares and feeling terrible, hardly able to think. I had gone to visit the publishers of the Chowkhamba Sanskrit Series, whose main office was in a sweltering attic. As I sat there feeling like I could die and afraid I was going to pass out, I came to the conclusion that I should leave my fellow travelers in India and return to America and check into a hospital for tests. I really felt that bad. Mercifully there popped into my mind the matter of salt tablets used by workers during extremely hot weather or working conditions. Upon leaving there, I went directly to a drugstore and bought some. That night before sleeping I took several, and awoke in the morning feeling completely well and mentally alert. So from then on I kept salt tablets with me when traveling in India.
Nothing can justify the prohibition of salt except in special medical cases such as high blood pressure, and then it should be made by a qualified medical practitioner. Yet this moronic dictum is to be found in many books on yoga.
Prohibition of chillies. Anywhere in the world, but particularly in a tropical climate like that of India, intestinal parasites are an inevitable problem. And few things are more helpful in eliminating them than chili peppers, especially fresh green ones. Chillies contain a natural form of quinine that is very cleansing for the digestive tract and helps in warding off malaria, another tropical danger. To tell yogis to never eat chillies in any form is irresponsible as well as ignorant.
Prohibition of garlic. Equally nonsensical and irresponsible is the prohibition of garlic. Garlic is the best antibiotic nature has to offer. It cures many ills and destroys intestinal parasites and cleanses the intestines. Large amounts of garlic can be of supreme help at the onset of colds, flu, and other troubles. It is also very beneficial in high blood pressure and insomnia.
Prohibition of onions. Onions purify the blood and tone up the digestive tract. They also enable a person to endure hot weather (raw onions are especially good for this). They are beneficial in every climate, but in India they are especially so. Not only did Sri Ramana Maharshi consider prohibition of onions and garlic silly, he actually wrote a satirical song about his mother’s exagerrated aversion to even touching them. Since one of his disciples, Annamalai Swami, was in charge of building in the blistering hot weather, he had him eat so much onions that he reeked of onion and consequently became known in the ashram as “Onion Swami.”
Prohibition of all spices or flavorings. This is utterly silly. The spices and other flavorings used in traditional Indian cooking have genuine health benefits. For example, Sri Anandamayi Ma formulated a recipe her devotees called “Anandamayi Kitchuri.” For flavoring it contained turmeric, ginger, anise seed, fenugreek seed, cumin seed, plenty of chilis and salt. This was eaten by those who practiced intense sadhana under her direction. Each of those ingredients has a medicinal value, and Ma said that if this was eaten daily as the major item in the diet, they would not become ill. I have eaten some of the food that Ma herself ate daily, and it was hot! Those who had eaten Ma’s cooking told me the same. Sri Ramakrishna used to tell those who were cooking for him: “Put in enough spices to make a pig squeal!”
There are those in India that call their food prohibitions “eating sattwic,” but Krishna will say in just a few verses that tamasic people like and recommend tasteless food. The idea that the yogi’s life is to be bland and boring does not come from real yogis. And that applies to food, as well. Krishna will also point out that sattwic people like flavorful food. As one famous yogi told me: “Boring people like boring food and interesting people like interesting food.”
Read the next article in the Bhagavad Gita for Awakening: Food and the Three Gunas