The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 23: The Principle of Non-Dualism


Lorenz attractor by Wikimol. From Wikimedia Commons (click for source)

[The wise] live in freedom who have gone beyond the dualities of life. Competing with no one, they are alike in success and failure and content with whatever comes to them. They are free, without selfish attachments; their minds are fixed in knowledge. They perform all work in the spirit of service, and their karma is dissolved. (BG, 4: 22-23)

Krishna casually drops another big principle here: Non-dualism. Dvandva is a word that Easwaran translates as “dualities” and Feuerstein translates as “pairs-of-opposites” (see my note on the text here). Hot and cold, pain and pleasure, up and down — all of these are reported by our senses, and we begin to perceive the world in terms of them.

But the awakened see that the world is not so one-dimensional. Our senses mix things up: at the first unexpected shock of an ice cube touching the back of your neck, your brain reports the sensation not as cold, but as burning. There are plenty of examples of pain and pleasure being almost indistinguishable, like when you scratch an itch. And the direction “up” only has meaning when you are planet-bound; get on a rocket and go “up” long enough, and up ceases to have any meaning in outer space.

These pairs-of-opposites are mental models, but they only have meaning in our heads. We get used to them and we use them to make value judgments: beautiful and ugly, good and bad, friend and enemy, human and non-human, valuable and worthless. We stop seeing things as they are and see them only in relation to our desires.

We extend this to all kinds of social and political relationships. It is a truism that we are more polarized than ever. We see the world through the distorted lenses of race, class, and gender. If something falls outside our binary mental models, or if more than one thing is true at a time, we struggle to fit it into our worldview. Can something be both trash and treasure? Ugly and beautiful? Can a person be both sinner and saint? Masculine and feminine? Human and divine?

Not only does taking a step outside of our mental models can help us cope with stress and the world’s craziness; it also helps us understand reality. Jesus himself is a paradox, an example of non-duality. He speaks in riddles and parables: you find your self by losing it. God shows power by becoming weak. Here’s Paul on the subject of non-duality, first for himself:

… I have learned how to be content in any circumstance. I know the experience of being in need and of having more than enough; I have learned the secret to being content in any and every circumstance, whether full or hungry or whether having plenty or being poor. I can endure all these things through the power of the one who gives me strength. (Philippians 4:11-13)

And second, for society:

There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28)

God in whom all things hold together, we live in the midst of duality, division, and polarization caused by selfish attachment. Help us leave behind mental labels when they cease to be helpful, and see things as they are.