The Philosophy of Life

Yoga in Rishikesh

There are three books in the literature of India which define and depict the entire philosophy of life. One of these books you have heard a great deal about. Some of you have read it, some of you have looked at it, some of you have studied it and some of you are trying to practice its teachings: the Bhagavad Gita, the Song of the Lord, Song of God, Song Celestial. It is a book that will become your companion amidst all your problems or questions in the battlefield of life.

As you may know, the book begins with a situation where two armies are standing face to face because two cousins have a dispute over who owns the king­dom. The story leading up to this point has to do with succession in royalty, which is always from king to prince, or father to son. The time came in the history of the solar dynasty that the elder prince who was entitled to the kingdom was born blind, and it was felt that he could not run the kingdom. So the kingdom was given to the younger brother. Both brothers grew up; Dhritarashtra, the elder blind prince had his children and Pandu, the younger brother who actually became the king had his children.

Now the question arises: who is the rightful successor—the sons of the elder brother who is blind, who because of his blindness was not selected to be the king, or the sons of his younger brother who was the actual king? That is the dispute. The whole book of Mahabharata, 110,000 verses, tells the story of that situation and also gives a philosophy of history—not history—but a philosophy of history.

Given such factors in human devel­opment, what happens? These circumstances go back many, many generations—hundreds of genera­tions. One of the peculiarities of this story is that in the middle of the war, these philo­sophical dialogues are also going on. But this isn’t so unusual in Indian history. For example, one of the rules of the life style of kings, princes and ancient soldiers was that soldiering was a daytime occupation, the same as if one goes to the office to work. They would wake up in their camps in the morning, do their ablutions, do their pray­ers, and then get ready for the day’s duty of standing in the battlefield and fighting. In the evening as the sun was about to set, they would lay down their weapons, go to their own camps, do their ablutions, do their evening prayers and meditation, and have a good night’s rest. At night the ene­mies could go and visit each other, and fraternize, and send for soup from the oth­er’s kitchen.

This has been the rule of war wherever the Hindu and Buddhist kings have ruled throughout history, from India through Burma, from Thailand through the ancient Indian colony of Champa now known as Viet Nam. All the ancient kings followed this principle: no war at night. From after sunrise, from the second part of the day to the third part of the day, you fight your battles. The law books say that a person who is wounded must not be attacked; bystanders and civilians must not be hurt. Women and children must not be hurt. Someone who is surrendering, someone who is trembling in fear must not be attacked. If the opponent does not have a weapon, you cannot fight him, you cannot attack him.

The ancient kings would follow all of these laws called the laws of dharma­yuddha, righteous conduct in war. The war you cannot abolish, but you can limit it by all of these kinds of rules. This was just the way it was-done.

This great work called the Mahabha­rata, 110,000 verses, the longest poem in world literature, talks about the causes of this particular war.

And in the middle of the narration of the story of the war are recorded these philosophical episodes between Lord Krishna and his disciple Arjuna How Krishna became Arjuna’s charioteer is a meaningful story in itself. Krishna was not only regarded as God incarnate, but he was also a prince and was physically related to both sides, that of Dhritarashtra and that of Pandu. At first he tried to bring peace, but did not succeed, so when the war became inevitabk, both parties wanted his help. He got disgusted and said, “Look here, two of you, Arjuna my friend (of the Pandus) and Duryodhana (Dhritarashtra’s son), you both come in the morning before I wake up and whoever I see first, whoever is first to come to see me in the morning, he will have my help.”

So Duryodhana (the “bad” guy of the story) couldn’t sleep. He got up very, very early in the morning and he came to Krishna’s bed chamber, but he was so proud of himself that, as Krishna slept, he took a seat behind Krishna’s head. Arjuna took his good night’s rest and he came in his own good time. As the custom is in the East, when you respect somebody, you sit by his feet. So he came and sat down by Krishna’s feet. Krishna woke up. When one wakes up, one doesn’t look behind, so as he woke up he saw Arjuna sitting in front by his feet and he said, “So you are here, Arjuna.”

Duryodhana then spoke from behind and said, “No, no, I came first.”

So the dispute arose; even though Duryodhana came first, Krishna saw Arjuna first.

So Krishna said, “All right, don’t start your war in my bedroom. I have another solution, I will divide my strength half and half.” He said, “On one side will be all my armies, all my weapons, my commanders, my princes, my horses, my elephants, my chariots of war, my treasures, my cities, everything. On the other side, I stand alone; I shall not raise a weapon through­out the war, I shall only chauffeur the horses of the warrior who chooses me. You make your choice, the two of you.

Duryodhana said, “I have plenty of chauffeurs, Krishna. You give me your chariots of war and your weapons and your armies and your princes and your cities—that will add to my strength. Why would I choose one single man?”

And Arjuna said, “If the Lord is not with me, what will all these weapons and all these horses and chariots, engines of war, treasures, do for me? Krishna, I choose you; be my chauffeur and don’t raise a weapon during the war if you so wish.” It is thus that Krishna, God incar­nate, happened to become Arjuna’s chauffeur.

When the two parties had gathered their strength and were standing in military formation, Arjuna said to his chauffeur, “I must survey my army and the enemy and let me see who is with me and who is against me.”

And he saw, “My goodness. My uncles, people who are like my grand­fathers, people who have taught me, even some of my great teachers, they are all on that side. I have to fight against them?”

He said, “My hand trembles, Krishna, my skin is burning, my head is whirling, my bow is slipping from my hand; I cannot stand on my two feet, I shall not fight.”

He placed his bow in the chariot and sat down. And that is the situation. Now Krishna has to counsel Arjuna The Gita is the only great scripture in the world that has been taught in a battlefield; two armies are standing waiting for the war to begin, and here Krishna is giving Arjuna a dis­course on the philosophy of life and on dispassionate action.

“Do not seek the fruits of your action, Arjuna. Consider victory and defeat to be the same, loss and gain to be the same. Be of even mind, Arjuna; fight, but without fever; overcome your hatred and fight, overcome your fear and fight.

“Who do you think you are? You are only an instrument in the great scheme of things that are run by the Divine power. Look, I will show you my great form.”

There in the middle of the battle­field, Arjuna has a vision of the Lord. The suns and moons are falling into His mouth, the armies and cit­ies are all doing their work right in the body of the Lord; there are thousands of faces in all directions and thousands of arms in all directions.

“Oh, my Lord! All these beings pro­pelled, impelled by some unknown force are drawn to you, born in you, working in you and being absorbed back into you again. Who are you, Lord, what is your name, how do I know you?” Arjuna exclaims, “I am afraid of the great form of Thine, Krishna. I am afraid, Lord. This vision is too terrible, too powerful for me.” He said, “Be my friend again. Not knowing who you are, I have treated you like an ordinary friend. I have eaten with you and joked with you; please do forgive all the transgressions I have committed, for I did not know who you were.”

If the lord is not with me, what will all these weapons and all these horses and chariots, engines of war, and treasures do for me? Krishna, I choose you, be my chauffeur and don ‘t raise a weapon during the war if you so wish.

And the two armies are standing, wait­ing. They had already got their weapons all set and ready. This is one teaching: what is that battlefield? That is the battlefield of life. India, for example, won her indepen­dence under the leadership of Gandhi who carried this book, the Bhagavad Gita. In every prayer meeting Gandhi would recite its verses. Chapter two, verses 52 through 74, he would recite every day in his prayers. You should read them if you can, even every day.

These verses say: What is the definition of a person of stable wisdom who has reached the state of harmony, or samadhi? How does a per­son of steady wisdom speak, how does he sit, how does he walk? When a person abandons all desires that he has carried in his heart, when he is contented by the self, within the self, seeking nothing external, then he is called a person of steady wisdom. He whose mind is not agitated in sorrows and he who is not drawn uncontrollably to comforts and pleasures, he who has mas­tered all attractions, fear and anger—such a contemplative one is called a person of stable wisdom.

A person may fast and thereby weaken his body so that desires do not arise, but his taste towards the objects he fancies yet remains. Only when the Supreme one is seen does the taste for objects of the world vanish—not by fasting.

Elsewhere in the Gita, also, it is said, “Not someone who does not eat at all; such a person attains no yoga. Nor by eating much, neither by completely stopping to sleep nor by sleeping too much. It is by keeping a middle path that one attains yoga.” This Chapter Two, verses 52 through 74 is the crux of the teachings of Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita. Read that.

The whole Gita is only 700 verses out of 110,000 verses of the great epic poem Mahabharata and right in the middle of the narrative of the story of war, there is a huge section called shanti parvan, which is called the Narrative of Peace. It lasts for 15,000 to 20,000 verses. Right in the middle of the narrative on war, there is the shanti parvan, the section on peace. That section is the great story of Bhishma. Bhishma was a lifelong celibate. It is believed in the yoga tradition that a person who is truly a celi­bate in body and mind is a master of death, because he has conquered the flesh. Bhishma is that figure in Mahabharata—a perfect celibate—and also the commander of the army opposing Arjuna. Arjuna has great respect for him; but Arjuna is doing his duty in the war. He is in a very difficult position because his enemy Bhishma has complete control over his own death. So Bhishma at the age of 151 is commanding the opposing army and poor Arjuna keeps on shooting arrows upon arrows at Bhishma; he fights the battle, becomes exhausted and nothing happens to Bhishma the commander. He just won’t die. Though they were in opposite camps, they had no personal grudge, however. Bhishma had seen Arjuna grow up like a grandson.

So one night after the battle is over and everyone has done their ablutions, taken their wash, and completed their prayers and had their dinner, Arjuna decides to go for a stroll into the enemy camp and have a word with Bhishma. Arjuna walks in and touches the grandfather’s feet. In India, we have a cus­tom of giving a blessing to someone who touches the feet: either you say, “Be happy” or you say, “Live very long.” So Arjuna touches Bhishma’s feet, and Bhishma says, “Live very long.” Bhishma spent the whole day shooting arrows at Arjuna and now tells him to live very long!

Bhishma says, “Welcome, my grand­son. Tell me what brought you.”

“What brought me?” says Arjuna. “A question brought me; tell me, how can I kill you? What should I do? You are a perfect celibate, a 151 -year-old commander, stand­ing in front of me the whole day and all my efforts are in vain. What should I do?” The traditional philosophy in the Mahabharata is one in which the principal of non-aggression remains, even in the middle of aggression, so Bhishma and Arjuna can meet this way, though on opposing sides of battle.

To continue the story, Arjuna says, “Well, what should I do? Is there any weak­ness in you?”

So Bhishma tells him the weakness. Bhishma has no special love to continue living, he is not afraid of death. He knew that someday he would have to die, he had lived 151 years, so he tells Arjuna his weak­ness. The next day Arjuna exploits that weakness and shoots Bhishma’s body full of arrows.

Bhishma decides, however, not to die. Bhishma felt that it was not yet time for him to die; he wanted to wait for the right moment. So it is said that Bhishma lay on this bed of arrows for six months, and during those six months, all the sages and all the great teachers and all the warriors and everybody who was anything made a pilgrimage to Bhishma, as he lay there. While the war is going on in one area, a little bit away from there is Bhishma lying teaching all about peace and politics and how the kings should behave and how a person can become master of death.

No passion should carry you away so far that it becomes a fixation. In the middle of a devastating war, one should be able to practice withholding, restraining oneself, without malice.

When a person abandons all desires that he has carried in his heart, when he is contented by the self within the self seeking nothing external, then he is called a person of steady wisdom.

That is the teaching of the Bhagavad Gita, the Song of the Lord: that an enemy should be able to trust you, that in the evenings he can come to your camp and share a bowl of soup with you. This is the philosophy of curbing your passions. Every human being wants to make a great conquest; we all carry little sticks to put notches on, right? Every one of us does this. If it is not one kind of conquest, then it is another kind of conquest. Some young men like to put notches on for how many girls they have had, some girls like to put notches on for how many boys they have had. Some intellectuals like to put notches on for how many books they have written. It is all the same. Writing about meditation and the art of dying doesn’t make one a conqueror of death, and one should be able to face that, too.

The only true conquest is the conquest of the self. We read in the Gita, “He has conquered the whole world, who has conquered the self, by the self, within the self.” It is a conquest of the self that we are missing. We are conquering the whole world, but the self we have not conquered. Until you can conquer all your passions, you can at least learn to curb them. Step back 10 per cent from yesterday’s indulgence; just step back a little and let your whole life style be determined by this 10 per cent restraint, 10 per cent reduction in all your passions, in all your strong emotions, in all your pos­sessiveness, in all your possessions, in all your desiring, in all your gathering of fruits of your actions, just 10 percent. It will give you great strength—great, great strength.

There are times when it is very difficult to give up; it is not easy—things we treas­ure, things we value, situations we value, relationships we value, our own pride that we value, our own elements of evil that we value: what should we do? You know it is good to give up something, but you just don’t want to, right? It would be nice to be able to, but there are these buts and ifs; you are unable to: what do you do then?

The answer is to start with the periph­ery; don’t give up the whole thing. Start in little corners and gradually you will gather strength. When Alexander of Macedonia invaded India, it was an empire and one of the generals of that empire was General Chandragupta, referred to by the Greek historians as Sandrogottos. After Alex­ander’s defeat, General Chandragupta decided to do something about the tyranny of the current emperor so he gathered a band of guerillas (lam talking of the fourth century B.C. when such tactics were used) and he started a revolution. He lost and was on the run, wearing tattered rags, mak­ing haste through the countryside. As he was on the run, one evening, hungry and tired, he saw a light burning. He went towards it and found an old woman living alone who gave him shelter, not knowing that she was sheltering a guerilla. She had cooked a rice and dahl dish and gave it to him while still hot. He put his hand right in the middle of the dish and burned it, exclaiming, “My God!”

She looked at him, laughed and said, “What is happening to these young men nowadays? You remind me of that guerilla general, General Chandragupta; he is just like you.”

He said, “Huh? What? What did you say?”

She said, “The foolish guerilla general, he starts his revolution right in the middle of the city and fails; you put your hand right in the middle of the hot rice and get burned. You should instead start eating on the edges.”

General Chandragupta should have worked on the countryside first; he should have taken one village and another village and so on, sur­rounding the city. Then he would have succeeded in eventually raising his flag in the middle of the city, but the fool starts right in the middle of the city!

General Chandragupta didn’t finish his rice; he instead got up and ran, saying, Thank you madam, thank you very much for guiding me. I am that general of whom you speak, and you are right.” He took her advice and finally overthrew the tyrannical emperor.

So, in your conquest over the self, over the passions of the self, over the uncontrollable desires of the self, start on the periphery, conquer a little bit at first, and gradually gather strength. You will come out a winner, shining and glorious. Life is a battlefield. This art of fighting in the battlefield of life and conquering your inner enemies of anger, passion, frenzy, ego and possessiveness is given in the Bhagavad Gita, the Song of the Lord. Read it, read it, read it, again and again and you will find great guidance.

I had said that there are three books that depict an entire philosophy of life. The second book is even less known than the Gita—it is called the Laws of Manu. The English word man is related to this word Manu. What or who Manu is, is very difficult to state. Whether it is a historical figure or it is an idea or a cosmic force, we don’t know. But Manu refers to the lawgiver, the first man. The Manu story goes back to the Indian story of the flood. In Indian philosophy, time is not something that starts at point X and goes to point Y, not something that starts out of the blue and ends in the blue. The Manu story is part of the idea of cycles and it is believed that the universe comes and goes, comes and goes, comes and goes. It’s created, it dissolves, it’s created, it dissolves, and in one cycle of creation of earth, there are said to be fourteen floods. Why fourteen? There are seven in the ascending cycle and seven in the descending cycle. You can consider it symbolic, you can consider it historical, you can consider it part of philosophy or simply a way of looking at things. It is said that up to now in the history of the world there have been seven floods, and that we are now right in the middle, and that seven more are yet to come.

The story of the last flood is as follows: one day sage Manu in his ashram went for his morning ablutions to the river, and as he was taking some water for his ritual sip a little fish swam into his vessel. He was about to throw it out when the fish said, “Manu, don’t throw me away. I will be of great help to you, save me.”

So Manu took the little fish in his ritual vessel into his chamber and kept it there. The fish grew a little bit too large, so he put it into a larger pail of water; it grew larger still so he took it out again and put it into the ashram pond. It got too big for the ashram pond and the fish said, “Take me back to the river.”

Poor Manu had to lug the fish to the river again. When he dropped it in the river, the fish said, “Thank you. I am very pleased for what you have done for me, and what I want to tell you is that I am no ordinary fish. I am the Lord incarnate and I take many forms.” (The people of India believe that if God can come down and become human, why can’t he become something else also?) The fish continued, “Sometime soon there is going to be a great flood. It is in my scheme of things, but I want you saved. So do build yourself a great big boat, have a rope ready and as the waters begin to rise, remember me. I will have mental contact with you and I will appear.”

So Manu built the boat; the waters began to rise and began to flood the earth, but Manu had his boat ready with a rope on the side. He remembered the fish and it came. It had sprouted a horn, and the fish said, “We will tie your boat to my horn.” That way the fish carried Manu and his boat over the waters for a very long time, until finally they came to a mountain in the Himalayas which was beginning to stand out of the flood waters. The fish said, “Now my task is done here. Get out and tie your rope at the foot of the mountain; I will go. You carry on from here.”

Manu was then told to propagate the beings and create the various life forms all over again, and that is why the Sanskrit name for human beings is Manushya, children of Manu.

The word Manu in the books that deal with the science of mantras is used interchangeably with mantra. Manu is, in fact, understood to be the collective conscious­ness of all mantras. The English word man, and the English word mind are derived from the same verb root from which the word Manu and the word mantra are derived—the Sanskrit root man, “to medi­tate.”

Portions have been added to the book from time to time that are completely unsuitable for the social conditions of today’s world, but the basic principles are still valid. The first chapter is on the process of creation, the last chapter is on karma and all the rest is on human behavior and government; the duties of a student, of a householder, of a renunciate, of a monk and of a king. In reading the first chapter on the process of creation, one understands that laws of behavior, politics or economics cannot be developed without consideration of the total universal order. The most important point about all the various teachings in India of the sciences is that they always begin with an account of creation, and this account always brings forth the goal of emancipation of the human spirit. We must know where in the total universal order we fit as pieces, and we should walk with that consciousness.

The third book is a story, called the Ramayana, which tells, in 24,000 verses, the story of the Rama incarnation, that everybody in India often reads and recites. In Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and on the island of Bali, the country folk sit all night watching what is known as the wayang plays, which are shadow plays depicting the story of the Ramayana. A belief prevalent in India is that God incar­nates at different times and in different centuries to fulfill particular missions; the purpose of the Rama incarnation

So in your conquest over the self over the passions of the self over the uncontrollable desires of the self start in the periphery conquer a little bit at first, and gradually gather strength.

is to exhibit the ideal prince, the ideal husband, the ideal wife, the ideal brother, the ideal kingdom, the ideal citizen. Sometimes when the story is recited, it is so touching that listeners weep. In Indian villages, the priest is called whenever the villagers request a reading of the Ramayana, and then for seven days the priest has a morning. afternoon, and evening session for which the whole village gathers. There are no invitations sent out. No one psychoana­lyzes or collects data; all just sit and listen to the story. It provides the answers that one can apply in daily life, with humility and gentleness.

Rama. the elder brother, knows that he is the rightful heir to the kingdom, but because his step­mother doesn’t want him, he walks out of the kingdom for fourteen years of exile. Then Bharata the stepmother’s son, says. I have no right over this kingdom.” He goes searching for Rama in the forest, finds him, and says. “Brother, come back.”

Rama replies, “No, I have already given my word. I don’t break it; I will live here fourteen years with my wife.”

Sita, his wife, says, “I’ll stay here. I am not going hack to my father’s house; my place is here. I’ll sleep under the trees.

Bharata pleads. “But I cannot go back. I cannot rule that kingdom; it is not mine to rule. Brother, give me your wooden slippers.”

So he takes the elder brother’s wooden slippers, stays out of the capital city in a little village where he places the wooden slippers on the throne. Bharata then rules the kingdom for fourteen years, as it were. on behalf of the elder brother, using Rama’s slippers to symbolize Rama’s pres­ence as the true king. Bharata then sleeps on the floor, because his elder brother is doing so. That is some of the story of Ramayana. just a small fraction.

Great saints, people who have searched within, have always gone through one or another kind of persecution. If it is not persecution by a king, as in the Mahabha­rata, then it is a persecution from the fam­ily, as we saw in the Ramayana. In one way or another, there is always somebody who disagrees with you. There is always some source of sadness. Without sadness, there is no light. Without suffering, there is no wis­dom; without sadness there is no hope of illumination. If you try to run away from your sufferings by drowning yourself in external pleasures, you cannot; sufferings keep chasing after you and they frustrate you until the end, when you die unillumi­nated. So. whether it is a sadness in the longing for God or suffering brought on by people in your surroundings, that purging is absolutely necessary. If you come to a yoga institute because you think it might alleviate your suffering, you will only exchange the lower kind of suffering for a higher kind, a gross kind of suffering for a more refined kind. The suffering that you go through to gain pleasures and comforts is abandoned; instead, you go through the suffering of tapas. the burning, the droughts, to remove the chaff that is in you. That is a natural process. No matter where you are seeking the higher reality, tapas. the burning, is a natural process; the gurus make sure that there is plenty of fire. They burn you, burn you, take you through that fire. A story from Swamiji’s book, Living with the Himalayan Masters, illus­trates this: Swamiji’s master says, “okay, you want God, you want samadhi? Here is a heap of jewels. Accept it, and you will be richer than any king in the world. You can have it. Good-bye. I am going. If, however, you want to come with me, you have to go through the fire.”

He shows him the vision of this heap of jewels on one side and a burning fire on the other and Swamiji sees his guru pass through that fire and leave the heap of jewels behind. Swamiji himself then goes through that fire with his guru.

So you have to go through that fire, as Arjuna did, as Rama did, as Manu did If you will not take the fire of self restraint, then there are other fires; there is no shor­tage of fires in the world, which, if we willingly pass through them, cleanse our being until we are ready for the final fire of Self-Realization.