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Chapter 16:


Banish Ignorance   *   *   *


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To gain wisdom, you need to undertake the practice of inner inquiry. In this practice you dissociate yourself completely from your mind and your thoughts. It is identification with the mind and its impurities that causes bondage. In this connection, Krishna told Arjuna, "Timidity, grief, sorrow... all these weaknesses and fears that you are experiencing are associated with the mind. What is the reason for this sorry state you find yourself in? It is the impurities in your mind, Arjuna. You have identified yourself with this impure mind, and as a result you are suffering."


Embodiments of Love,


The first thing Krishna did when he started speaking was to diagnose Arjuna's malady. Arjuna was suffering from ignorance. He was ignorant of his own true nature and the true nature of everyone else. Because of this ignorance, Arjuna came under the spell of delusion and duality. He had fallen prey to the impurities in his mind. He felt the anxiety of separation. As a result he became despondent. He was overcome with grief and sorrow. The cure for this disease of ignorance is wisdom. Therefore, Krishna started his teachings by expounding on the path of wisdom.


Your True Nature is Eternal Joy


Life may be thought of as a flow, where different energies, feelings or states of being come together and then separate again. These are moments of transition, when a particular ephemeral quality changes to its opposite, or when a particular time period changes to another. For example, the junction between night and day, between sleep and waking or between health and illness are times of transition. The coming together of happiness and sorrow is also such a time. At the very moment of transition, you are neither happy nor sad. At that time when you transition from one feeling to another, your mind is in equipoise and you are not bound by either emotion. But you do not remain there for long. Soon you move into the opposite quality, you feel happiness or fall into sorrow, and you come under the sway of that feeling. Of course, you aspire only for happiness and not for sorrow, but to permanently achieve that you must transcend all these temporary feelings.


When you become aware of the transitions you realize that your unchanging truth is neither of the opposites which you cycle between in life. The path of wisdom reveals to you your essence which is eternal joy. Your true nature transcends all these temporary joys and sorrows. When you are identified with your eternal self, you are not be affected by the pairs of opposites. The path of wisdom teaches the way to eternal joy through the practice of detachment and discrimination. This practice must be based on unwavering love for the divinity, present everywhere.


The Body is the Outer Garment that You, as Pure Spirit, Wear


In the Gita, you will find reference to the master of the sense organs, and to the one who has acquired control over his sense organs. Krishna was the master of the senses and Arjuna had gained control over the senses. But at the beginning, Arjuna was steeped in body-consciousness and was not in control at all. Arjuna began worrying after he started thinking about the future consequences of the forthcoming battle with his relatives and friends. He was deeply concerned with what might happen following the destruction of these people. In other words, Arjuna was thinking only in terms of body-consciousness. The body can be thought of as a vessel or a container or apparel which the individual soul puts on. Just as it is natural to throw away a dirty or a worn-out article of clothing and wear a new one, in the same way, you also give up this body and put on a new one. Krishna showed that death was very much like getting rid of an old piece of cloth.


When ordinary people hear that the body can be thought of as a dress that you put on and take off, they get some doubts. After eighty or ninety years when old age has had its effect, one can easily accept that the body has become like a worn-out cloth. Then one would agree that these old clothes should be left behind. But if a person dies during youth or manhood before old age has set in, it would amount to leaving new clothes behind. Suppose a body of twenty years is left behind, how can it be called an old worn-out cloth? That is obviously a new cloth. Krishna answered this doubt with an example.


Suppose you had gone on a pilgrimage one year and while there you had purchased a piece of cloth. You brought the cloth home and kept it in a closet. Then after five or ten years, while putting some clothes in storage, you came across this piece of cloth and remembered that you had bought it many years earlier. You took this cloth to a tailor and got a shirt made. One day while wearing this shirt, you bent over to sit down and the back of the shirt tore. You thought it was a new shirt, but how quickly it had become torn! Why did it last only for such a short time? It tore because the piece of cloth was old; the shirt was new but the cloth came from old stock. Wearing a body and spending only a little bit of time in it may appear on the surface as if you are discarding a new body. But actually it is of old stock. It has come to you from many past births.


Here is another example that will help you to understand this. There are two individuals, a young person and an old one. The young man who is 18 years old has been striking a stone repeatedly, giving it twenty powerful blows with a hammer, but it does not break. He sits down to rest. Then an elderly person comes along and with only two strokes of the hammer breaks the stone. What is the reason for this surprising result, where the stone did not break after 20 strokes given by the strong, young person, but was quickly broken by a feeble individual of 80 years of age who gave it only two strokes? The mistake in thinking is to count only the two strokes given by the old man, believing that the stone had given way after the impact of those two strokes. But in truth, it gave way after 22 strokes. After the 20 strokes given by the young man it was given an additional 2 strokes by the elderly person; then it broke.


This Body is Only One of Many You Have Worn


Similarly, you may have done a number of spiritual practices and enjoyed a variety of spiritual experiences in a previous birth, after which you gave up your life. Now in this life, you resume your spiritual journey and even before you attain old age you may gain spiritual fulfillment. In thinking about this kind of thing you may be taking only the present life into account, considering only the efforts and consequences of the actions of this birth. But in the eyes of the Lord, all your past lives, all your past efforts and past consequences are considered. Krishna said, "Dear child, in the end, each body is destroyed by time. Know that you have existed in countless bodies and have gone through countless cycles of births and deaths for ages past, as far back as anyone can count."


The very meaning of the word for body in Sanskrit, is 'that which wears out'. It is born as a lump of flesh. During its growth it becomes a beautiful attractive body, but then ultimately it becomes old and loses its strength and attractiveness. The body is an inert, insentient thing. During a lifetime it undergoes a number of changes and then eventually gets worn out. But now you may have a doubt. How can the body be called inert and insentient? It is talking, it is walking, it is living, it sees, it hears, it feels, it experiences pain, it is full of activities. This living body cannot be called inert. But, once you wind the mechanism of a watch, it also starts working and moving. From that moment on, the hands of the watch will be going around and the bell will be chiming every hour. But that is not sufficient reason to say that the watch is alive. Because of the power it got when you wound it, this watch functions properly. In the same way, because of the life energy given by God, your body talks and performs various functions. Without the divine principle animating it the body cannot function, just as the watch cannot function without being wound.


But now another question arises. A watch is working but it does not change its form and size, whereas a body will be growing. How can you account for this? If it is merely an inert thing how can it grow? Inert things do not grow. But if you sweep the floor and collect the dust and put it in a dustbin, even that heap will grow. When you go on feeding this body with all sorts of food, this body also grows. As the food heaps up inside, the body grows. A heap of dust may grow but you cannot say that it has life. Similarly, just because you find your body growing you cannot infer that it is alive. The body itself is just an inert thing. But it is full of consciousness, because its very basis is divinity. Always remember that basis. It is this divine consciousness that supports and activates the living principle in all beings.


Ignorance is Being Unaware of Your True Nature


When Krishna called Arjuna ignorant did it mean that Arjuna had no education? No, it did not mean that at all. Arjuna had mastered a great number of skills; he was well trained in the martial arts, in the art of administration and many other professional skills. But in the field of spirituality he had no knowledge. Here he exhibited real ignorance. People use their capacities and faculties to specialize in one particular field and develop a proficiency in it. Some people use their faculties for mastering music, others write poetry, others develop skills in painting and sculpture. Among scientists, one person will achieve excellence in the area of physics, another in the area of chemistry, another in mathematics, still another in biology. In that way they may have made extraordinary contributions, each in his own particular area. But they do not know much about other areas of knowledge.


The only one who has complete mastery and proficiency in all areas is God. That is why he has been described as omniscient. One who is omniscient is also omnipotent and all-pervading. Only God has these three qualities, omniscience, omnipotence and omnipresence. Knowing the past, present and future, and knowing that Arjuna was ready, Krishna undertook to teach Arjuna the great spiritual truths. He told Arjuna, "Recognize the ephemeral nature of the body and never forget its unchanging basis. With that divine basis as your focus, discharge your duties. To begin with you must get rid of all your attachments. You are overwhelmed by attachment to the body. This attachment is very dangerous. It will destroy all your powers of discrimination." There is a small story to illustrate this.


The Danger of Being Attached to the Body


Once upon a time Indra, the lord of the celestials, was cursed to be born as a pig on earth. Being born thus, he was spending all his time living a family life in dirty, muddy water. The sage Narada, while passing by and seeing this pig and its family, recognized Indra reduced to that lowly form. Narada, who loved Indra dearly, took great pity on him. Narada spoke to the pig, "Indra, look at what a state you have degenerated into. How did this happen? How could you, a great deity with unlimited power, the lord of all the heavenly regions, have come to this? But never mind, don't worry, I will get you out. I will use all my accumulated powers of penance to help you." He spoke to him very sympathetically, lamenting that one who should be enjoying all the luxuries of heaven had been put into such a miserable state. How very unfortunate Indra's life had become, Narada thought.


But, Indra, in the form of the pig, replied, "Narada, why are you coming in the way of my happiness? The joy that I am getting in this dirty water I will not be able to get anywhere else. The wonderful life that I am enjoying here with my wife and children in this mud hole I cannot even get in heaven. Why have you come here to meddle with my life and get in the way of my joy? Please go your way and leave me be." Indra, who was under the spell of the illusion of attachment, did not realize his pitiful condition. Narada had to summon Indra's own weapon, the celestial thunderbolt, to render that pig body asunder and free a much-relieved Indra from his prison of attachment and body-consciousness.


When you are under the spell of attachment; you will be completely deluded. This delusion is due to the irresistible power of maya, which veils your truth and keeps it hidden from you. If you want to destroy this power of illusion, you must develop your knowledge of the true self. Therefore, Krishna took it upon himself to start out his teachings by instructing Arjuna in self-knowledge. It is only after you have the direct experience of your eternal self, that you can truly do your work and discharge your duties properly. Without this knowledge you will not understand even the mundane daily activities relating to the world.


Listening to spiritual teachings can help you only to a small extent. When you are listening to the Gita you feel so happy and so full of joy. It all seems so simple. But this elation you experience is just a temporary phenomenon. When you undertake to put the teachings into practice many real problems and difficulties arise. But you must persist in your efforts. The teachings will do you little good unless you put them into practice. Whatever you have heard and whatever you have read you must enter into and completely make your own. Then you will gain something truly worthwhile.


You Must Live the Teachings


A great sage, while on a pilgrimage, reached a village in the south of India. In the temple of this village a number of people had assembled. A learned teacher was expounding the teachings of the Gita. The teacher was reading the text, the disciples would repeat the verses and then the teacher would give the appropriate commentaries. One particular disciple was found sitting in a corner profusely shedding tears. All the other people were holding the Gita and were repeating the lines, listening to the teacher's words very attentively. Their facial expressions would constantly change as the text was being expounded. Sometimes they would be joyful, sometimes serious. But the disciple sitting in the corner was not having any experience like that. His facial expression did not change at all. He was only shedding tears.


The sage observed all this. He addressed the man and asked him, "Why are you crying? When the Gita is being expounded in such a joyous way, what is the reason for your sadness?" The man replied, "Master, I do not know who you are. I do not know Sanskrit. I cannot pronounce the verses. Since I do not know Sanskrit I do not want to repeat these verses in the wrong way because I may be committing a sin that way. Therefore, I was just picturing in my own heart Krishna giving this Gita to Arjuna there on the battlefield. Krishna was seated in the driver's seat, Arjuna was sitting behind him in the chariot. I was crying because I was imagining Krishna having to turn his head back for such a long time, trying to convince Arjuna of these great truths. Keeping his head turned like that must have given him a great deal of pain. If only Arjuna had been sitting in front and Krishna in the back, then it would not have caused so much trouble to the Lord. Thinking of that hurts me very much."


The sage recognized that here was a true devotee. The man was experiencing so much love for Krishna and had immersed himself so deeply in identifying with the Lord giving the Gita teachings to Arjuna, that he had become a part of Krishna, himself. The sage concluded that experiencing such feelings was far greater than merely listening to and repeating the Gita verses.


Even now, while the Gita is being expounded, some of you are writing everything down reverently in your notebooks while some of you are holding the Gita in your hands and following the verses, trying to learn them. But these are all just outer activities which will not evoke very deep feelings of devotion. If you want your heart to become completely saturated with the essence of the teachings, you must seek the inner experience. Do this by putting the verses into practice in your daily life. Even if you practice only one of them it will be more than enough. What is the use of taking down a hundred of them? If you fill your head with all the contents of the book, your head will be just another book. What counts is what you get imprinted on the book of your heart. Even if only one of these teachings is imprinted in your heart that will be all that is needed. Let your heart become saturated with love. That is enough. Instead of filling your head with scholarship and book knowledge it is far better to fill your heart with love.


Ignorance Must be Completely Dispelled


Krishna said to Arjuna, "There is no meaning in your grieving and lamenting, basing all your feelings on these outer bodily attachments and relationships. Go inside; let your mind become introspective. Then you will be able to understand all the things that I am expounding. You are grieving for people for whom there is no need to grieve. You are making yourself miserable without reason. You should not suffer so. You are feeling all this sorrow because your heart is full of ignorance. Drive this ignorance completely out of your heart. It is only when there is not even the least vestige of ignorance left in your heart that you will be capable of understanding wisdom."


Ignorance is like fire. Suppose a fire is extinguished almost completely, except for just a few glowing embers. If a breeze comes up, sparks from these few coals may develop into a huge conflagration. Therefore, there should not even be a remnant of the fire left. Ignorance is also like sickness. Suppose your disease is almost cured but there is only a small vestige of it left. If, after coming home from the hospital, you give up the proper diet, it may quickly develop and spread again. There should be absolutely no remnant of disease left.


You can also compare ignorance to being in debt. Suppose you have discharged all your debts; there is only one small loan of a hundred dollars left. But if you let the interest accumulate, what will happen? The debt will start piling up again. Therefore, you should discharge your debts completely. In the same way, if there are any latent impressions of attachment and desire left in your heart, your sorrow is likely to flare up and grow. That is why Krishna admonished Arjuna, "If you retain even the smallest trace of attachment in your heart, whatever I teach you will become useless. You must completely destroy all your attachment which has been fed for so long by the ignorance that is beclouding your heart. To help you do this, I am teaching you the path of wisdom."


The wisdom teaching is an extremely important part of the Gita. Once you understand the difference between the true self, the divine atma, and the false self which is associated with worldly things, then all the other teachings will become very easy to understand. You have to spend a number of days in concentration, trying to understand from the very core of your heart the distinction between the real and the not-real, and then detach yourself from the not-real. That is the central teaching of the path of wisdom.


Each word of these teachings is a rare jewel. It is only when you completely understand the nature of the wisdom path that you will be able to understand the Gita in full and live a life free of grief and sorrow.


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