I know the news is terrible, and our political system is garbage, and the climate is changing, and our leaders are inept,
…but my GOD, it is a lovely cool morning. The last straggling hummingbird is drinking from the feeder. He just checked in by my ear to see what I was writing. (Actually, he didn’t care. He was just being polite).
I’d say we don’t deserve such beauty, but that’s kind of the point of it, right? “Deserving” is such a long con. The world is here to remind us of the truth: absolutely none of this beauty and terror is about deserving. Every last bit of it is a gift.
I’m teaching a class at UAB called “America’s Religious Diversity.” One of the themes of the class is that it is difficult to define religion. Not all religions have scriptures. Not all have supernatural beings. Not all have dietary laws. Not all have clergy. Not all focus on beliefs. Not all focus on practices. It is unlikely to find a definition of religion that accurately encompasses them all.
This becomes clearer as you study world religions through history. Before contact with European colonizers, most indigenous people in the Americas and in West Africa didn’t think of what they did as “religion.” It was/is simply part of culture. It’s what your people do. Have a life question? Visit the wise woman and consult your ancestors. Have an ailment? Consult the herbalist for physical and spiritual medicine.
On contact with colonialism, many of those religions were forced to adapt, to re-organize themselves in order to gain legitimacy in the eyes of the dominant culture. Even “Hinduism,” some argue, is an invention of British occupiers of “Hindustan,” the Persian name for residents of that country.
There are two important points here. First, “religion” is an idea, a framework, a mental model or a lens we use to look at culture—especially a culture different from our own. Like imagining light as a wave or a particle, what you see will depend on what you are looking for. Second, you can practice a religion *without ever recognizing it as a religion.* To you, it’s just your way of life, one you share with your community.
This is why I find it fascinating that among both conservative and liberal folks today, “religion” is almost a universally negative term. “I’m spiritual but not religious,” is the phrase preferred by many who don’t go to church. But someone who does go to church is likely to say “Jesus is about relationship, not religion.” Stephen Prothero writes that “One of the most common claims among Hindus of the West is that ‘Hinduism is a way of life’ rather than a religion,” but what I observe is that nearly every sincere religious practitioner would make the same claim about their own beliefs and practices. People don’t practice their religion in order to be religious. They practice in order to find God, or enlightenment, or meaning, or connection.
If I’m following a typical progression of human faith development, by the time I’m an adult, I don’t do things just because my parents or neighbors did them. I do them because they are meaningful to me — not to someone else.
In other words, “religion” has come to mean what OTHER people do—people whose beliefs and practices don’t hold sway over me. Calling something a religion is a way to delegitimize and mock it, as Michael Pollan does in his book Second Nature when he describes the absurd cultural symbolism of American lawns: “Think of nature as Spirit, the collective suburban lawn as the Church, and lawn mowing as a kind of sacrament.” This tremendous waste of energy, he says, reflects an aesthetic and cultural belief in democracy. We all have to pitch in and work to create this unbroken fake prairie that is the American lawn.
I often do the same thing when I compare sports to religion. At sporting events, we have collective singing and chanting, rituals and superstitious practices offered to the gods of chance and fairness (like the coin toss), animal-headed gods (mascots) who function as symbols for our team (just like the ancient Egyptians), and the sport itself, which echoes the ancient Greeks and Aztecs offering their ritualized combat to the gods.
But I think both of these things—sports and lawns—DO represent a civil and cultural religion. It’s just not one we question or regard through a religious lens, because alien colonizers haven’t shown up on our doorstep and told us how strange these practices are. They haven’t told us what we do is quaint, or primitive, or backwards, or barbaric.
So while I think “religion” is a particularly Western and colonial idea, I also think it is practically inescapable. It is a trap we have created for ourselves. We want to believe our particular rituals, practices, and beliefs transcend our culture, that they have universal significance; but it’s so easy to see other people’s spiritual striving as mere religion.
In the larger epic that contains the Bhagavad-Gita (the Mahabharata), blind king Dhritarashtra is the head of the royal family that opposes Arjuna. The whole dialogue between Krishna and Arjuna is being reported to him by his charioteer.
As Krishna draws his dialogue with Arjuna to a close, he says,
Make every act an offering to me; regard me as your only protector. Relying on interior discipline, meditate on me always. Remembering me, you shall overcome all difficulties through my grace. But if you will not heed me in your self-will, nothing will avail you. (BG18:57-58)
This last line has a particular poignancy in the context of the epic. We’ll get to that in a minute.
When Jesus concludes the Sermon on the Mount, he offers a similar warning: Those who listen to his words and put them into practice will be like a wise builder who puts the foundation of a house on rock. In the storm, such a building will stand firm. But a foolish builder builds a house on sand, which collapses in a strong wind (Matthew 7:24-27).
But if you will not heed me in your self-will, nothing will avail you. Remember, according to the story, we are “overhearing” this dialogue in the back of a chariot, but this is only a literary device. The phrase hints that Krishna’s words are directed to the reader, not just to Arjuna. Krishna has repeatedly told Arjuna that he is precious, that he is on the right path, and so on. While he could be speaking generally (because any young prince might be overcome by self-will), it’s written as though Krishna is gazing beyond Arjuna’s shoulder and addressing all of us who are eavesdropping.
The chapter—and the Gita—concludes in Sanjaya’s voice, the character reporting to Dhritarashtra. This whole dialogue is being reported to Arjuna’s enemies by one who has overheard. He says that hearing the conversation made his hair stand on end, and filled him with wonder and joy. Imagine if, in the Bible, the Sermon on the Mount were reported by Judas to High Priest Caiaphas and the Roman Governor, Pontius Pilate! Would we read it differently?
I think it gives a little twist to the whole work. Your enemies are hearing this same wisdom; they have the same access to it that you do. It awes and inspires them. Does it change their hearts? Does it change the way you think of your relationship? Does it change your approach to wisdom? Does rivalry make you desire it more? Or would you reject it because someone you hate is putting it into practice?
Krishna goes on to tell Arjuna not to share these words with the unworthy and immature (which sounds like “do not throw your pearls before swine,” (Matthew 7:6). He also says that anyone who hears them with faith, “will find a happier world where good people dwell” (BG 18:71) So as this dialogue is being reported to the blind king, he is being offered a kind of peace. (And this is not the first time Krishna has offered him peace).
I think this is a particular aspect of wisdom in both Christianity and Hinduism: those who are pursuing wisdom have fewer reasons to be enemies. Those who are wise have sympathy even for their rivals. I think of David grieving over Saul, or Joseph reconciling with his brothers. If we are free of attachment to our actions, if we do not lust after wealth or temporary pleasures that cannot satisfy, what do we have to fight over? It’s not as if wisdom is “owned” by one party or tribe more than another. It is freely available to those who humble themselves enough to ask for it and its rewards are for any who diligently put it into practice.
Prayer: Foundation of the Universe, let me build my life on nothing but you.
This concludes my regular devotionals on the Bhagavad-Gita and the Bible. I’m going to take a short break and offer a reflective summary in a few days. I’m preparing to teach a class at UAB on America’s Religious Diversity, so this has been a helpful exercise for me in comparative religion. I hope you’ve enjoyed it!
I will start a new series in a week or two on mental health and religious practice. In the meantime, if you need a daily devotional, I recommend CAC’s and Richard Rohr’s here.
In the next chapter, Krishna continues to riff on the three gunas. He says,
Sattvic knowledge sees the one indestructible Being in all beings, the unity underlying the multiplicity of creation. Rajasic knowledge sees all things and creatures as separate and distinct. Tamasic knowledge, lacking any sense of perspective, sees one small part and mistakes it for the whole. (BG 18:20-22).
Krishna has described a kind of dialectic: Tamasic thinking (superstition and magic) is the thesis. People who hastily create a worldview from their limited experience tend to assume their perspective is universally true. Its antithesis is rajasic analytical and scientific thinking. This is a cognitive leap, where people dismantle the old superstitions. The synthesis is sattvic thinking, which understands the union of spirit and matter, science and spirituality. One who is enlightened “sees the one indestructible Being in all beings, the unity underlying the multiplicity of creation.”
I do not see this as three separate ways of knowing. I see it instead as normal human development. We all start off as children, trying to make sense of a world that makes little sense. We are taught concrete rules and concepts: Don’t touch a hot stove. Hard work is rewarded. These concepts are true for their context, and they shape a worldview. Some people get stuck in a childlike understanding of the world. They assume their experience is universally true, and that absolute truth is easy to grasp.
Generally, as we get older, we learn more scientific and relativistic ways of thinking. There are many different perspectives. To truly understand something, we must test it. Reality is complex. We have all kinds of “coming of age” stories where the protagonist goes through a lonely period of questioning and disillusionment. There is no longer any such thing as “absolute truth.”
As we get older still, many of us synthesize these two perspectives. There is a universality in our particularity. The distinctions between naiveté, cynicism, and wisdom become blurry. Part of our human task is to grow into deeper and richer forms of knowledge, where more than one thing can be true at a time, and where we transcend dualistic thinking. Light can be both a wave and a particle. Energy and matter can be the same thing. A human can be both a sinner and a saint, temporal and eternal. Life and death are no longer opposites, but part of an endlessly creative dance.
In the Bible, scholars refer to two kinds of wisdom literature: conventional wisdom, and unconventional wisdom. Conventional wisdom represents the kind of knowledge you want to instill in children and young people so that they will be effective in life, like: “The faithless will be fully repaid for their ways, and the good rewarded for theirs” (Proverbs 14:14). But eventually we turn a skeptical eye on such simplistic wisdom. Job rails against injustice, asking, “Why do the wicked live on, growing old and increasing in power?” (Job 20:7). Ecclesiastes takes a more nuanced and personal view: “All share a common destiny—the righteous and the wicked, the good and the bad, the clean and the unclean, those who offer sacrifices and those who do not” (Ecclesiastes 9:2).
That’s part of why I think these three kinds of knowledge are not rigid categories. They are a looping progression. And the more we know, the more we realize what we do NOT know. As the Buddha said, “we do not speak of enlightenment.” This is not the kind of knowledge you can put into words.
Prayer: Wisdom Beneath All Things, I already know you. Help me to know you better.
Krishna has been telling Arjuna about how faith (shraddha) affects our behavior. He tells Arjuna that when one practices spiritual disciplines of the mind (self-restraint), the body (nonviolence), and of speech (honesty) with great faith, “the sages call this practice sattvic.” But he goes on to say,
Disciplines practiced in order to gain respect, honor, or admiration are rajasic; they are undependable and transitory in their effects. Disciplines practiced to gain power over others, or in the confused belief that to torture oneself is spiritual, are tamasic. (BG 17:17-19)
You may remember that sattva, rajas, and tamas are the three forces of evolution that Krishna describes. Sattva is the force of enlightenment; rajas is the force of passion and restless activity; tamas is the force of delusion and torpor. Krishna says that merely practicing religious disciplines doesn’t get you anywhere. How and why you are practicing are just as important. Is it to win social approval? To do penance? To gain power and harm others?
Jesus himself says something similar: Be careful that you don’t practice your religion in front of people to draw their attention. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven (Matthew 6:1). He goes on to say that giving alms, praying, and fasting should be done secretly, so that our reward will be between us and God. Jesus calls people who practice rajasic religion to gain approval from others, “actors,” which is what hypocrites means in Greek.
Krishna includes a category of practice, though, that I think more Christians should know about. Some people practice religion either to gain power over others, or in the confused belief that to torture oneself is spiritual. This is where toxic, white supremacist, evangelical Christianity in the United States finds itself today. Religion used to gain political power causes manufactured suffering on a massive scale.
Jesus calls them out, too: “How terrible it will be for you legal experts and Pharisees! Hypocrites! You shut people out of the kingdom of heaven. You don’t enter yourselves, and you won’t allow those who want to enter to do so” (Matthew 23:13). The moral lesson that so many American Christians have learned from white evangelical Christianity is that human beings are terrible and deserve to be punished. This has justified all kinds of authoritarian religious and political behavior.
This delusion is tamas: the practice of religion to gain power over others, including the belief that self-torture, guilt, and wallowing in shame are spiritual. This does not move us closer to God. It merely fortifies the lie that we are alone and abandoned, separated by our sin from God. I’ve heard Christians say that God refuses to even look at sinful, broken, abominable humanity. It’s a great theology for authoritarians.
The truth is that God is, as Muslims say, “as close as the veins in your neck.” God doesn’t need our self-torture or an impressive performance. God has no use for religion as a tool of social control or political power. Religious disciplines are only useful insofar as they help us to know more deeply that love holds the universe together.
Prayer: Love that holds all things together, open my eyes to those things that bring abundant life.
Having described the life of wisdom and how enlightened people see God all around them, Krishna speaks briefly about the opposite: the life of delusion.
“There is no God,” they say, “no truth, no spiritual law, no moral order. The basis of life is sex [desire]; what else can it be?” …Hypocritical, proud, and arrogant, living in delusion and clinging to deluded ideas, insatiable in their desires, they pursue their unclean ends. …Bound on all sides by scheming and anxiety, driven by anger and greed, they amass by any means they can a hoard of money for the satisfaction of their cravings. (BG 16:8, 10, 12)
Krishna calls such a perspective “demonic.” It is the opposite of non-attachment. This is a path that leads to continual rebirth.
I need to point out that both in the Bhagavad Gita and the Bible, what is being described here is not doctrinal atheism. It is practical atheism. I know plenty of moral, kind atheists. It is entirely possible to reject theism (doctrinal atheism) and believe in a moral order, just as it is possible for someone to intellectually agree that God exists and act like a self-centered jerk. There are many Christians who are practical atheists, whose worldview has more in common with Ayn Rand than Jesus. Because of an intellectual or lifestyle commitment to their self-gratification, they store up for themselves treasures on earth instead of in the heavens.
Practical atheism, in the view of these authors, is about how one behaves. We find similar scripture in Psalm 14: Fools say in their hearts, There is no God. They are corrupt and do evil things; not one of them does anything good. People who read this verse often fail to notice the “in their hearts” bit, or how it relates to folly. “Fool,” in the Hebrew Bible, is not just an insult. Being a fool is a moral failing. And it is possible to say with your mouth that God exists, and to say in your heart, “there is no God.”
Paul delivers a similar polemic when he describes paganism in Romans 1. For Paul, people become like the gods they worship, and the pagan gods were constantly petty, selfish, vindictive, and lustful: Since [the pagans] didn’t think it was worthwhile to acknowledge God, God abandoned them to a defective mind to do inappropriate things. So they were filled with all injustice, wicked behavior, greed, and evil behavior. They are full of jealousy, murder, fighting, deception, and malice. (Romans 1:28-29)
(This Romans passage has often been used as a “clobber passage” against LGBTQIA persons, and I recently preached about how this is a complete misunderstanding of what Paul is saying. You can see this message here.)
Acknowledging God, for these authors, means acknowledging that the highest good is found outside of our temporary desires. There is a deeper longing in us for something eternal, something that connects us to every other creature in the universe. This is not about an intellectual assent to the existence of God. It’s about a commitment to seeking and knowing Ultimate Reality in an intimate, life-changing way.
Prayer: Thou who art Truth, fill me with desire for what truly satisfies.
Krishna uses a striking metaphor for reality: an upside-down tree.
Sages speak of the immutable ashvattha tree, with its taproot above and its branches below. …Nourished by the gunas, the limbs of this tree spread above and below. Sense objects grow on the limbs as buds; the roots hanging down bind us to action in this world. (BG 15:1, 2)
This is not just any tree. It is the “sacred fig,” or bodhi tree, the same kind of tree the Buddha meditated underneath when he received enlightenment.
The notion here is that we can see all of reality as such a tree, with its roots “upward,” in the heavens, and its branches “below,” manifesting as the created world. In truth, there is no up or down, but the image is intended to show us how the created world of sensible, changeable things grows out of timeless, eternal, ultimate reality. It’s a visual metaphor for how all of existence is “rooted” in God and grows out of God’s being. The taproot grows from Being Itself. All we tiny buds of sense-experience, with our thoughts and feelings about the changeable world, draw consciousness like nutrients from the root. Existence is not some static, dead thing. God does not merely exist, but lives, and we live because God lives.
Christians will likely hear two resonances in this description of reality: The Tree of Life and Jesus’ description of the vine and branches.
In the Garden of Eden, there are actually two trees, one of Life and one of Knowledge. Adam and Eve choose one and forego the other. They opt for an experiential understanding of opposites, “good and bad,” instead of intimate life with God. Christians have generally interpreted this decision as “the wrong choice,” or the doctrine of the Fall, but it isn’t clear from the text that the author understands it that way. The story makes no value judgment on their disobedience. They get what they want: intimate knowledge of shame and alienation. It’s only a “bad” decision from this side of the story, from the perspective of already knowing the difference between good and bad. Before that? It’s like asking what existed “before” time or the laws of causality. In a way, we’re still living that story, making choices about which tree we want to live by: the tree that offers a world of “pairs-of-opposites” or one that offers us transcendence and connection to God. In Hinduism, they are the same tree.
Jesus tells his disciples that they are the branches, and he is the vine. Abiding in him is a choice, something one has to will to do. Abiding is an act that connects us to what he calls “abundant life.” And when we get to Revelation, we see the Tree of Life again. This time its leaves are for “the healing of the nations.”
The interdimensional tree makes appearances in other faith traditions. In Norse mythology, it is Yggdrasil, and connects different worlds to each other. We can call it an archetype, if you believe in such things. Perhaps it is rooted in our collective unconscious, or perhaps it is a natural and handy symbol that different cultures attached significance to independently. Trees, after all, are mysterious to us. They are simultaneously familiar and alien to us. They typically outlive us, and many go through cycles of life and death (or hibernation) through the seasons.
I find the upside-down tree image particularly compelling, though, as a representation of multidimensional reality. We living consciousnesses are so much more complex than we know. There is more to us than meets the eye, more than meat held together in a skin-sack, running back and forth in a state of worry and lust to preserve a handful of microscopic genes. The world of sense-objects is held together by something vast, organic, and alive. We are part of it.
Those who attain enlightenment recognize that we are not locked in the isolated prison of our own subjective experience. We are connected, like limbs of an enormous tree, and we grow from the same Ultimate Reality.
Prayer: Great One, you are so much more than animal, vegetable, or mineral can understand.
Sattva binds us to happiness; rajas binds us to action. Tamas, distorting our understanding, binds us to delusion. …When sattva predominates, the light of wisdom shines through every gate in the body. When rajas predominates, a person runs about pursuing selfish and greedy ends, driven by restlessness and desire. When tamas is dominant a person lives in darkness — slothful, confused, and easily infatuated. (BG, 14:9, 11-12)
The three gunas are what Easwaran calls “forces of evolution.” Brahman sets them up to play, and they spin the universe into action. They operate in the realm of prakriti, the created cosmos, and all action comes from their interaction.
While sattva tends toward enlightenment (“upwards”), it is still a guna. It is not better or worse than the other forces, because there are no value judgments here. And while tamas pushes downwards, it is not “bad.” It is simply a force of evolution. And while rajas is about restless activity, it isn’t actually “going” anywhere. Krishna says, those [who live] in rajas remain where they are. (BG, 14:18).
From a human perspective, sattva, harmony and happiness, are desirable. Sattva moves us toward wisdom and enlightenment. But true enlightenment is what Krishna refers to as “going beyond the gunas.” The enlightened, like God, enjoy the play of the gunas without becoming attached to them. It is possible for human beings to become “attached” to seeking enlightenment, to chase spiritual experience the way some people chase money or sex or getting high. This becomes rajas, “restless activity,” born from attachment and unfulfilled desire.
The goal is to become like God, to enjoy the play of the gunas without becoming bound by them or attached to them. Krishna describes the one who as gone beyond the gunas as someone characterized by equanimity: Clay, a rock, and gold are the same to them. Alike in honor and dishonor, alike to friend and foe, they have given up every selfish pursuit (BG, 14:24-25).
This reminds me of the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus tells his disciples to give up pursuing treasures on earth, and to show impartial, unconditional love to friends and enemies alike. The life Jesus commends to his disciples is not ceaseless busy-ness, but a balance of work and rest. Those following the way of Jesus give up petty grudges, coveting pleasures they cannot or should not have, and delight in peace-making and the simple pleasures of universal love.
Going “beyond the gunas” means that we are no longer bound by or attached to the value-judgments of human society or our ego’s motivations. When we see things as they really are, we do not see them through the lens of “good” and “bad.” They simply are. My enemies are not “bad;” they are simply motivated by different things, subject to different gunas in their own context. I can view them with compassion instead of judgment. And in my own life, though I am still subject to these forces of evolution—activity, inactivity, and enlightenment—I can view my life from a divine perspective.
Prayer: Wise One, fill me with your wisdom. Help me live with radical acceptance.
[Brahman] dwells in all, in every hand and foot and head, in every mouth and eye and ear in the universe. Without senses itself, it shines through the functioning of the senses. Completely independent, it supports all things. Beyond the gunas, it enjoys their play. (BG, 13:13-14)
Yesterday I wrote of Tillich’s theology of being and non-being, and how the paradox of God creates tension. I ended with “there is no creation at all without tension.”
Hindu metaphysics says something similar. In the next chapter (14), Krishna will addresses how the world we experience through our senses comes to exist, but here he lays the groundwork. How can this world, this finite creation of change, of pleasure and pain and “pairs of opposites,” come from a changeless, non-dualistic God? How can a God who is pure Consciousness, beyond time and space, give rise to a bunch of little consciousnesses who, most of the time, don’t really know what they are doing as they go about their limited time and space?
Krishna introduces the concept of the gunas. Easwaran describes these as “forces of evolution.” These are the fundamental kinds of activity from which everything else in the created universe emerges. They are forces of change: toward activity and passion (rajas), toward inactivity and dormancy (tamas), and toward enlightenment (sattva). All change falls into one of these categories.
But Brahman, God, Being Itself, is beyond all such change. For example, God does not “see” the way we see. We see because photons bounce off of objects, penetrate our eyeballs, and activate photochemical receptors on our retinae. This is not how God “sees.” In one sense, God is not a body and has no eyeballs. In another sense, God actually has ALL the eyeballs in the universe, sees through them, yet does not need any of them to “see.” God animates all things, and is animated by none. This is why Krishna says, “Without senses itself, it shines through the functioning of the senses. …Beyond the gunas, it enjoys their play.”
The very sense of sight, in this way, is a revelation of God, because God “shines through the functioning of the senses.” Sight is not just about receiving data from passing photons. It has deep personal meaning. “Being seen” by other consciousnesses makes us feel real and alive. The Zulu greeting “sawubona” literally means, “I see you.” Hagar, feeling abandoned and abused, names God “the God who sees me” (Genesis 16:13). Our senses gather data from our world and keep us alive, but they are so much more than that. They bring us joy, relationships, and beauty.
What does this tell us about the relationship between our changeless God and changing creation? It’s not like God woke up one day, felt bored, and decided to create something. Yet God experiences everything we experience, included waking up, feeling bored, and creating something. God is deeply involved in change. The gunas, in Hindu metaphysics, are how God gets to remain changeless yet create change and, in some sense BE change itself. The gunas allow God to have God’s cake and eat it, too. They are the foundational forces of creation, like gravity and electromagnetics.
Prayer: Changeless and ever-changing God, change us. Help us delight in creation as you do.