He who thinks the Self is slayer
And he who thinks the Self is slain–
Neither of the two understands;
The Self slays not, nor is it slain. —Bhagavad Gita 2:19
The lessons to be learned
Being either killer or killed is impossible; so Krishna assures Arjuna–and us. The Gita is being spoken on a battlefield so martial action is the subject, but the principles presented by Krishna can be applied to anything in life. The fundamental lesson is twofold:
- everything has a meaning for us, and
- no “happening” or change is real. But we are real, and that should be the basis of our entire perspective on our present entanglement in the birth-death drama.
If we are not careful we will fall into the trap of considering only the negative as unreal and think of the positive as real and therefore to be accepted as such. This is not so. Sin and virtue, hellishness and holiness, are equally unreal. However, sin and evil render us incapable of seeing the truth of things, whereas virtue and holiness wean us from the illusions around us and purify our mind so we can come to learn the real Facts of Life from life itself.
Yet, no change is ultimately real. Not even the decision: “I want to know God.” Insight and aspiration mean nothing of themselves. Only when they result in involvement in spiritual practice (sadhana, tapasya) do they mean anything. Yes, even the process of sadhana (meditation, yoga) is unreal, but its result is real in that it reveals the Real. In Indian thought spiritual practice is often spoken of as a thorn used to remove a thorn in the foot. Both are then discarded. Yoga is also just a movie, but it is a movie that leads to self-knowledge in which yoga ceases to be a practice and becomes a state–the state of consciousness that is our eternal being.
So all the holy and spiritual thoughts and feelings or philosophy we may come up with are just more of the same light and shadows that have been fooling us for countless creation cycles. They will eventually degenerate and reveal themselves as valueless as all our other fantasies. Only when they inspire us to take up meditation and authentic spiritual life are they of any worth, assisting us in drawing nearer and nearer to The Real.
The effects of self-knowledge
But knowing the atman-self is a different matter altogether. The attainment of self-knowledge is not the same as working out or puzzle or figuring out a riddle. It has a practical effect: eternal Peace and Freedom. Therefore Krishna continues:
“Neither is this [the embodied Self] born nor does it die at any time, nor, having been, will it again come not to be. Birthless, eternal, perpetual, primeval, it is not slain when the body is slain” (2:20)
This is the perspective that gives abiding peace to the seer. And further:
“He who knows this, the indestructible, the eternal, the birthless, the imperishable, in what way does this man cause to be slain? Whom does he slay?” (2:21)
Do not dream: know. Then you will be free from the compulsions and anxieties of the world-dream.
When we cling to these compulsions and anxieties, birth, life, and death are agonies raking us like hooks and whips. But what are they in actuality? Krishna says:
“As, after casting away worn out garments, a man later takes new ones, so, after casting away worn out bodies, the embodied Self encounters other, new ones” (2:22).
How simple! And how effortless. It is our clinging, our grasping, that torments us. For though we do not realize it, aversion and distaste are also graspings after them. To push a thing away we have to touch it, to come into contact with it. And once touched it works its effect on us.
Although Krishna is speaking of the experiences of physical birth and death, the same is true of any kind of “becoming” or dissolving of both external and internal experiences. The same is true of the various states of consciousness that we pass through on the way to the goal of perfected awareness. We should pass into and out of them as easily as changing our clothing, neither clinging to them nor tearing them away from us.
Easefulness is the keynote of genuine spiritual development. There are no traumas, no cataclysms or sweeping shake-ups in the path to God. Such things only take place in the prisons of illusions. If they do occur we may know that we are either on the wrong path or are walking it in a wrong manner. Spiritual hypochondriacs revel in these things, regaling their hearers with lurid accounts of how traumatic and cataclysmic every step of “the path” has been for them. Their dramatic bombastic revelations are symptoms of mental illness, not of progress in spiritual life.
Finally, Krishna’s statement that “the embodied Self encounters other, new ones,” is an indication of the truth that it is we and we alone that are always in control. But, like those afflicted with short-term memory loss, we put ourselves into a situation and then forget we did so, attributing it to God, fate, accident, or just about anything but ourselves. Therefore, praying to God, engaging in superstitious “good luck” practices (which is what most religions are and little else), trying to “cheat fate” and suchlike are doomed to failure and frustration. WE are the key.
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