Those who renounce attachment in all their deeds live content in the “city of nine gates,” the body, as its master. They are not driven to act, nor do they involve others in action. (BG, 5:13)
Krishna has been talking about the way the wise person, by understanding and identifying with the Self, can act without being attached to the results. Today I want to spend a moment on this descriptive metaphor for the human body: “the city of nine gates.” There is a fascinating allegory in another scripture, the Srimad Bhagavatam, that goes along with this metaphor, about a king (the Self), his queen (intelligence), their many bodyguards (the senses), and all the bodyguards’ wives (the desires) who inhabit the city of nine gates (the body).
There’s some ambiguity in how humans understand the body and our relationship to it. Are we a soul in a body, like a ghost in a machine? Are we our body, with our consciousness created simply by chemical reactions in our brains? Are we a “psychosomatic unity,” with body and consciousness intertwined?
I love the notion of the body as a city, with traffic constantly coming and going, with many symbiotic and competing processes going on inside. The “gates” are the places traffic comes and goes: sensory data, food, waste, reproduction. It is so much different than the “machine” metaphor which arose during the European Enlightenment, that looks at the body as simply a collection of parts. A city, by contrast, is only a city because there are many living creatures in it. It is hub of ceaseless activity, even when it appears to be still.
Compare the idea to this Proverb from the Bible: “Like a city breached, without walls, is one who lacks self-control” (Proverbs 25:28).
I’m reminded of another metaphor used in the Bible: “…don’t you know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you? Don’t you know that you have the Holy Spirit from God, and you don’t belong to yourselves?” (1 Corinthians 6:19, CEB). We who never saw the Temple in Jerusalem might think of the temple as a simply a beautiful place of worship, but it was likewise a hub of activity, with gates, a courtyard, and different kinds of holy spaces for different kinds of tasks.
In both the Gita and the Bible, the question is this: do we really inhabit our bodies and treat them appropriately, or do we allow our desires and passions to rule us? Do we mis-identify the Self with the body, ruled by the notion that every desire must be gratified, allowing just any traffic in and out of its gates? Or do we manage our bodies as if they are whole ecosystems, treating them with reverence and love?
I have to note that the phrase “your body is a temple” is often used to shame people. There is enough body dysphoria in the world! Fat-shaming and slut-shaming are two particularly pernicious ways this metaphor gets used in our society. But there are so many different kinds of temples and cities in the world, and if they were all the same there would be no point in tourism! The metaphor is intended to help us: you get to live in this city, with all its quirks and beautiful spaces, its unique characters and particular spirit. Learning to love our city and manage it well is part of becoming a mature and wise human.
Revering the body as a temple, or a city, also means that we must do justice to other bodies. Incarceration, police brutality, violence enacted against other bodies is violence against God.
Prayer: This body is the container, the vehicle, the temple, and the city of my human experience. God bless my body!
NOTE: Because of the protests around the murder of George Floyd and the heightened consciousness of systemic racism, I’m going to take a brief intermission from the Bible and the Bhagavad-Gita next week. I will spend a few days talking about Drug policy and the Church. Drug policy and criminal justice are some of the main vectors of systemic racism in the United States.
I hope you will stick with these devotionals for this intermission. We’ll return to the Bible and the Bhagavad-Gita on June 15.