The Bhagavad Gita is not an exact relaying of the teaching Krishna gave to Arjuna on the eve of the Mahabharata War. First of all, who can believe that the two sat speaking to one another in exact meter? Also, it does not seem likely that the colloquy of Krishna and Arjuna occurred in a single block of time. Moreover, many of the subjects covered would simply be absurd to discuss when facing the carnage of battle. Considering that years of diplomacy and strategy had preceded this imminent holocaust, the war- and caste-related subjects must have been spoken about–and even debated–many times before.
What we have in the Gita is the divine illumination of Rishi Vyasa–to whom all the major figures of the Mahabharata were personally known–embodied in a dialogue set on the battlefield of life itself. Surely much of what is found in the dialogue was spoken by Krishna to Arjuna at some time, and there is good reason to suppose that Vyasa was present at some if not all of it. Indeed, the entire Gita may be a metrical retelling of what Vyasa heard Krishna say to Arjuna over the course of many years. What is certain is the fact that the Bhagavad Gita is the highest expression of truth, that it is the supreme scripture of the world, besides which all others seem pedestrian, partial, and limited.
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 acts under the impulse of desire, casting aside the injunctions of the scriptures, does not attain perfection, nor happiness, nor the highest goal. Therefore, determining your standard by the scriptures, as to what is and what is not to be done, knowing the scriptural injunction prescribed, 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 asks: “Those who sacrifice casting the scriptural injunctions aside, but filled with faith: what is their condition, is it 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 want to know? What is the guna (quality) of such faith?
Krishna has already said that “one acts according to one’s prakriti. Even the wise man does so” (3:33). He expands on that in this connotation, saying: “The faith of embodied beings is of three kinds, born of their innate nature [swabhava]. It is sattwic, rajasic, and tamasic. Now 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: “Faith is in accordance with the essential nature of each. A man consists of his faith. Whatever faith he has, that [thus] he 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 the yakshas and rakshas. The others, the tamasic men, worship the dead and the hordes of nature spirits” (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 being 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–usually 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. 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 distraction 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 “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 them. 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 for aeons upon aeons. Some will be quickly shunted back to earthly rebirth to again become their devotees and supply them with what they want. 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 deals with them. 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.
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. Some degraded Spiritists do the same, but the followers of Alan Kardec, being sattwic, communicate with higher spirits, and often with holy spirits of the level of the saints and angels. (The Spiritism of many is an augmentation of their Christian–usually Catholic–spiritual practice.) Beside 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.
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 the only friend they have in this world. 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: “Those malicious people hate Me in their own and others’ bodies” (16:18).
It is with this in mind that Krishna continues: “Men who undergo terrible austerities not enjoined by the scriptures, accompanied by hypocrisy and egotism, along with desire, passion, and force. The unthinking, torturing within the body the aggregate of elements, and also torturing Me thus within the body, know them to be of demoniacal 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–when 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 start being “super yogis” of this type I will not bother, but will name some of the foolish and evil things enjoined by contemporary 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. Upon leaving there, I went directly to a drug store and bought some. That night before sleeping I took several–and awoke in the morning feeling completely well and mentally alert. 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 bugs. 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.
Prohibition of all spices or flavorings. This is so silly I almost omitted it. There are negative fools that get in religion and do everything they can to make it repulsive or difficult, their intention being to drive people away while claiming to be promoting it. There are negative “yoga fools” that do the same. They call their food prohibitions “eating sattwic,” but Krishna will say in just a few verses that tamasic people like tasteless food–and they recommend it too. The idea that the yogi’s life is to be bland and boring did 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.” Everywhere in the world there are dim, petty people who make it their lifework to stymie and discourage others. They are not missing from the yoga world either.
More about the “yoga demons”
I have mentioned these few things to give you a general principle of judgment in matters yogic. Some years ago I found a wonderful book, The Seventh World of Chan Buddhism by Ming Zhen Shakya. It is wise and sometimes very funny. One chapter has a section on how the six different “worlds” of samsara are reflected in human beings, and especially in their approach to meditation. One kind are the “Titans” or Daityas, powerful and endurant demons who constantly war against the gods in both Hindu and Buddhist cosmologies. Here is how he describes “daitya yogis”:
“Titan Chan. In mythology, Titans were the crudely powerful ancestors of ancient Greece’s more genteel gods. And following in that tradition, people who practice Titan Chan have a brutish, sadomasochistic approach to religion. They are strict disciplinarians who can go no other way but ‘by the book.’ Whether inspired by martyrs, crusaders or drill-sergeants, they are convinced that their commitment to Buddhism and to the welfare of the monastery exceeds everyone else’s. And they truly believe that the indices of that commitment are pain, sweat, discomfort, deprivation, and compliance with a code that would make the KGB blush.
“Even though Titans are noticeably hard workers and reap considerable–if grudging–praise for their efforts, they still find it necessary to glean a last measure of satisfaction by denigrating the work of others. Though they grouse and nit-pick in differing verses, the chorus is always the same: ‘If you want something done right you have to do it yourself.’ As Titans understand religion, evil can be purged and goodness acquired by a variety of colorful ordeals. In addition to their daily rituals of sacrificing themselves in the performance of chores, they will, with all due fanfare, undertake prolonged fasts the difficulty of which is greatly lessened, they will modestly note, by considering the slop manufactured by the present kitchen crew; or they will take vows of silence, a tactic which allows them to glower, scribble, hiss or otherwise graphically mime their criticisms.
“During the leg-stretching, walking period that mercifully divides a long meditation session, Titans will remain seated in perfect posture demonstrating that they never abuse others more than they abuse themselves. In Japanese meditation halls one monk is assigned the duty of keeping everyone alert. He prowls the aisles with a long stick and if he catches someone nodding, he whacks him on the shoulder. These blows are rather bracing and should anyone decide for himself that he requires this stimulant to keep awake, he bows to this fellow and is flogged accordingly. Needless to say, Titans bow repeatedly. Witnessing their battery does not conduce to tranquillity though it is considerably more relaxing than having one of them on the other end of the stick.
“Traditionally, in Chinese Buddhism, after completing seminary training, both men and women novitiates go through an ordination ceremony during which three or twelve cones of burning incense are placed on the crown of their shaved heads. When these cones burn down they sear the scalp leaving permanent scars. At some later time the newly ordained priest might decide to repeat this cone-burning ordeal as a special penance or offering of some kind. Titans, of course, are among this practice’s most enthusiastic followers. Much like college football players who get little stars glued on their helmets to advertise their meritorious acts, Titan monks can have their scalps decorated with little round burn scars. (In Guangdong province, I met an old monk who had a few dozen more than the obligatory three or twelve. He laughed about them, attributing the excess to youthful exuberance. ‘Much like tattoos,’ he said with some regret.)
“To strangers, i.e., anyone who has not yet proven lazy, incompetent, spineless or immoral, Titans can be surprisingly congenial. But their initial friendliness is only a beachhead from which they will later stage attacks of righteousness. Intimidating martyrdom is not a strategy for winning close personal friends; but it does succeed in gaining attention and status.”
You get the idea.
Read the next article in the Bhagavad Gita for Awakening: Food and the Three Gunas
Bhagavad Gita for Awakening links:
- The Battlefield of the Mind
- On the Field of Dharma
- Taking Stock
- The Smile of Krishna
- Birth and Death–The Great Illusions
- Experiencing the Unreal
- The Unreal and the Real
- The Body and the Spirit
- Know the Atman!
- Practical Self-Knowledge
- Perspective on Birth and Death
- The Wonder of the Atman
- The Indestructible Self
- “Happy the Warrior”
- Buddhi Yoga
- Religiosity Versus Religion
- Perspective on Scriptures
- How Not To Act
- How To Act
- Right Perspective
- Wisdom About the Wise
- Wisdom About Both the Foolish and the Wise
- The Way of Peace
- Calming the Storm
- First Steps in Karma Yoga
- From the Beginning to the End
- The Real “Doers”
- Our Spiritual Marching Orders
- Freedom From Karma
- In the Grip of the Monster
- Devotee and Friend
- The Eternal Being
- The Path
- Caste and Karma
- Action–Divine and Human
- The Mystery of Action and Inaction
- The Wise in Action
- Sacrificial Offerings
- The Worship of Brahman
- Action–Renounced and Performed
- Freedom (Moksha)
- The Brahman-Knower
- The Goal of Karma Yoga
- Getting There
- The Yogi’s Retreat
- The Yogi’s Inner and Outer Life
- Union With Brahman
- The Yogi’s Future
- Success in Yoga
- The Net and Its Weaver
- Those Who Seek God
- Those Who Worship God and the Gods
- The Veil in the Mind
- The Big Picture
- The Sure Way To Realize God
- Day, Night, and the Two Paths
- The Supreme Knowledge
- Universal Being
- Maya–Its Dupes and Its Knowers
- Worshipping the One
- Going To God
- Wisdom and Knowing
- Going To The Source
- From Hearing To Seeing
- The Wisdom of Devotion
- Right Conduct
- The Field and Its Knower
- Interaction of Purusha and Prakriti
- Seeing the One Within the All
- The Three Gunas
- The Cosmic Tree
- The All-pervading Reality
- The Divine and the Demonic
- Faith and the Three Gunas
- Food and the Three Gunas
- Religion and the Three Gunas
- Tapasya and the Three Gunas
- Charity and the Three Gunas
- Sannyasa and Tyaga
- Deeper Insights On Action
- Knowledge, Action, Doer, and the Three Gunas
- The Three Gunas: Intellect and Firmness
- The Three Kinds of Happiness
- The Great Devotee
- The Final Words
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Read the Maharshi Gita, an arrangement of verses of the Bhagavad Gita made by Sri Ramana Maharshi that gives an overview of the essential message of the Gita.
Read The Bhagavad Gita (arranged in verses for singing) by Abbot George Burke (Swami Nirmalananda Giri).
Read about the meanings of unfamiliar terms in A Brief Sanskrit Glossary