The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 57: The Demonic

Oversized Neogothic Gargoyle, Basilique Saint-Nazaire, Carcassonne, by Txllxt TxllxT. From Wikimedia Commons

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.

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 56: The Ashvattha Tree

Ficus carica, an edible fig, aka pipal or ashvattha, by Dinesh Valke from Wikimedia Commons

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.

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 55: The Gunas

Street art at Chet Singh ghat. Shiva’s trident, representing the three gunas, 2015. By juggadery. From Wikimedia Commons.

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.

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 54: The Changeless and Ever-changing God

Mosaic from an archeological site in Jerash, Jordan

[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.

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 53: Being and Non-being

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

I will tell you the wisdom that leads to immortality: the beginningless Brahman, which can be called neither being nor non-being. It dwells in all, in every hand and foot and head, in every mouth and eye and ear in the universe. …It is both near and far, within and without every creature. It moves and is unmoving (BG, 13:12-13, 15)

I’ve mentioned Paul Tillich a few times in this series, and here in the first sentence the resonance is most powerful: Brahman, Krishna says, can be called neither being nor non-being. Tillich referred to God as the “Ground of Being,” or “Being Itself.” We often refer to God as “the Supreme Being,” but that implies God is one sort of thing among other things, just bigger or more perfect. But if God is the author of existence itself, then God is not just the biggest and best, one being among other beings. God is All.

This “Ground of Being,” Tillich said, also contains non-being. The very possibility of things to exist requires their non-existence. There is a point where they stop. This is not the case with God. So being and non-being are contained with the Ground of Being.

So we mortal creatures exist somewhere between being and non-being. We have a temporary existence. We experience finitude and have boundaries. We die. Tillich said that this experience of finitude causes us anxiety, and we often try to escape, either by puffing ourselves up with pride to delude ourselves we are more important than we are, or by indulging ourselves in hedonism and forgetting our mortality.

To face our finitude and connect to the Ground of Being, Tillich said, requires an act of courage. This is the title of his book, The Courage to Be.  

I believe Krishna is getting at a similar philosophy here. Brahman can be called neither being nor non-being. It pervades all beings, lending us some existence so we can live for a while and experience love, so that we can come to knowledge and bliss in unity with our Self and with the Ground of Being.

While I appreciate Paul Tillich’s theology, I recognize it’s pretty deep for the average church-goer. We are not usually taught Christian existentialism in church. But I believe we’d have a deeper appreciation for all life if we did embrace the paradoxes of our theology, if we spent some time wrestling with the question of Being. I think part of the reason we avoid the heavy questions in church is not because they are difficult, but because they are scary. Most of us would rather not talk about the terror of our own finitude or anxiety about our own mortality.

But if we do not, I do not think we can enjoy the bliss of unity with God, either. The paradoxes create tension, and there is no creation at all without tension.

Prayer:
God of being and non-being, create beauty in the paradoxes of my life.  

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 52: The Knower and the Field

Depiction of the concept of soul (Ātman) in Jainism, by Vijay K. Jain, 2012. From Wikimedia Commons.

The body is called a field, Arjuna; the one who knows it is called the Knower of the field. This is the knowledge of those who know. I am the Knower of the field in everyone, Arjuna. (BG, 13:1-2)

If you start practicing meditation with a guide, they will usually say something like this: “Let’s begin by drawing your awareness to your body. Feel where your feet make contact with the floor. Feel the position of your spine. Is there tension anywhere? Feel the way the cool air enters your nostrils and fills your chest.” We go on paying attention to the body and its senses because it slows us down and draws us into mindful awareness.

Mindful awareness lets us begin to understand the relationship between our emotions and our body. I carry anger high in my chest and in my neck. I carry my grief in my face and shoulders. I carry my tension by pressing my tongue into the roof of my mouth. When I pay attention to these places in my body where I feel my emotions, I can relax them. I can take a step outside my thoughts and feelings, which are very much rooted in my physical body, and become aware of my Self as something other.

Most of us walk around thinking that the chaos of our thoughts and our feelings is “I,” my self, when it is really just part of a story we are telling ourselves. This is a false self, and it is often frustrated because it only exists to meet short-term goals: to find pleasure and avoid pain, to meet my needs and keep me alive. But there is a deeper, truer Self, who recognizes that my body is part of the universe, my needs are temporary, and that my true Self does not end at the periphery of my skin.

Krishna says this conscious awareness is God: “I am the Knower of the field in everyone.” This used to sound like heresy to my Christian way of thinking, but I’ve come to understand it from a different direction. I’m not saying I, David, my ego, my thoughts and feelings and the story I’m telling myself, am divine. I’m saying that the animating Breath of God in me still belongs to God. The animating force that God breathes into the first human wakes up this lump of clay and gives it awareness:

…Then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being. (Genesis 2:7, NRSV)

In Genesis, when God decides to limit the length of a human life, God says this enigmatic phrase:

Then the Lord said, “My spirit shall not abide in mortals forever, for they are flesh; their days shall be one hundred twenty years.” (Genesis 6:3)

I do not think there is enough in the Bible to construct a metaphysics of life and consciousness, but there are hints that the authors think along the lines of Krishna, here: We are sustained by the breath, or the spirit of God. The stuff in us that gives us life is God, and when it departs, it returns to God. Without it, we are just dirt.

Of course, the dirt is also God, just in a different way.

This is different from the usual mind-body or soul-body split we think of in Western philosophy. The field and the Knower are both different manifestations of God’s endless creative action.

Prayer:
God within me and beyond me, draw me out of my false self and into unity with You.

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 51: True Love

An African boy with an “I Love Jesus” shirt in front of a painting in a museum, Paris, 2017, by Alexandralovejesus. From Wikimedia Commons

As he explains the Way of Devotion (bhakti yoga), Krishna describes how someone behaves who has truly renounced attachment to the results of their actions and devoted themselves to God:

That devotee who looks upon friend and foe with equal regard, who is not buoyed up by praise nor cast down by blame, alike in heat and cold, pleasure and pain, free from selfish attachments, the same in honor and dishonor, quiet, ever full, in harmony everywhere, firm in faith — such a one is dear to me. (BG, 12:18) 

This is the conclusion of a long passage in which Krishna lists attributes of a devotee, and says, “this one is dear to me.” I don’t read this as being conditional love: God loves everybody. I read this as describing how, as we enter into this reciprocal love, we are opened more and more to God’s love for us. We realize how dear we are to God when we allow ourselves to be loved by God, and see this radiant love extended to every atom of the universe.

There are two new Testament passages that echo this for me. The first is Jesus’s words in the Sermon on the Mount, which describes this impartial love of looking “upon friend and foe with equal regard.” God’s love is described as sunshine and rain, which falls on us all without distinction.

But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. (Matthew 5:44-45 NRSV)

The second is Paul describing the equanimity of one who has renounced attachment to results:

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 CEB)

I appreciate the way Krishna links impartial love with non-attachment. Though love can change us, love is not about fixing us. Love doesn’t enter our lives like a scolding parent trying to force a particular result. Love is about radical acceptance. It is through non-attachment that we come to understand true love.

Paul’s strength and endurance in every situation doesn’t come from gritting his teeth and plowing ahead. It comes from acceptance and non-attachment. As I learn to love impartially, like God’s own sunshine and rainfall, I come to bask in the sun and feel joy in the rain. I can be content in many circumstances.

Prayer:
Source of Love, of sunshine and rain, I long to love as you love, without anxiety or attachment to results.

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 50: The Way of Devotion

A Muslim Boy Praying in the Mosque, 2015, by chidioc. From Wikimedia Commons and Pixabay

After his cosmic vision, Arjuna asks who among Krishna’s devotees “are more established in yoga?” Krishna responds:

 Those who set their hearts on me and worship me with unfailing devotion and faith are more established in yoga. (BG, 12:2)

Just as a reminder, the four paths of yoga Krishna describes are:

  • Karma yoga: the way of selfless service
  • Raja yoga: the yoga of meditation
  • Jnana yoga: the way of knowledge (jnana, gnosis, and know all share the same root)
  • Bhakti yoga: the way of devotion and surrender

Krishna goes on to say that if you can’t do one of these, do the other. If philosophizing about the divine is too difficult, still your mind with meditation. If you are too restless to still your mind, engage your hands in selfless service. If none of these work, surrender the results of your actions to God and just worship.

I pointed out earlier that when discussing the four paths of yoga, Krishna has a habit of calling whichever one he is talking about at the moment the “best,” or praising its particular virtues. Here he does it again:

Better indeed is knowledge then mechanical practice. Better indeed than knowledge is meditation. But better still is surrender to attachment of results, because there follows immediate peace. (12:12)

I think “best” in this case has to do with the effects of practice on the practitioner. Devotion is best because gives us immediate results, a sense of peace and acceptance.*

To be honest, this is not how I usually think, and it does not come naturally for me. In church culture, prayer is often described as a way of “giving it to God,” turning loose of our concerns and troubles and realizing “it’s all in God’s hands.” I’ve generally found such sayings to be trite and unsatisfying. Yet I suspect there is wisdom here that is closer to “non-attachment to results.” Devotion, the way Krishna describes it, is not simply a naïve belief that God will make everything work out for the best if we just trust enough or try to believe in our hearts. It is an active process of loosing, of liberating the self through surrender and devoting the self to God. (The word Islam literally means to submit or surrender).

This is one reason I appreciate the study of Bhagavad-Gita. It gives me new language to appreciate aspects of my own faith tradition. I have a knee-jerk reaction to someone telling me to just “give it to God in prayer.” But I do understand the concept of surrendering the results of your actions. There is a reason this section follows Arjuna’s vision of Krishna’s glory: It’s easier to “give it to God” when you realize Who God Is. 

*(There are other ways to understand this passage, but they involve discussions of translation that are beyond my ability).

Prayer:
I let go of my attachments so that I can hold more firmly to You.

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 49: In Front and Behind

Lynn Canyon Suspension BridgeLynn Canyon ParkVancouver, Canada, by Diego Delso. From Wikimedia Commons

You are behind me and in front of me; I bow to you on every side. Your power is immeasurable. You pervade everything; you are everything. (BG, 10:40)

Arjuna continues to praise Krishna. His words remind me of Psalm 139:

You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. …Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. (Psalm 139, 5, 7-8 NRSV).

Both scriptures point to the inescapable presence of God. The Psalm even makes it sound deliciously terrifying: How can I escape? The author doesn’t want to escape, of course. The author is simply reveling in the intimacy of a God who sees and loves every inch of us, down to the cellular level: For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made (vv. 13-14). This is one reason the story of Adam hiding from God in Genesis is supposed to be amusing. The God who made us isn’t confounded by our hiding, nor shocked by our nakedness (Genesis 3:10-11).

Arjuna likewise is overwhelmed both by Krishna’s omnipresence and love. Having seen that the Lord is present in every atom of the universe, he feels a need to repent, in case he has been too familiar with his chariot-driver or shown disrespect. But he feels confident in God’s intimate love: As a father forgives his son, or a friend a friend, or a lover his beloved, so should you forgive me (BG, 10:44).

God’s omnipresence may be more baffling and impressive than God’s omnipotence, because it’s personal. God has intimate knowledge of us, of who we are, of our fears and desires, our grudges and aspirations. It’s not like we can turn in a certain direction and avoid God.

It seems to me that we have a continuum of experiences with God’s presence. Either a) we feel God’s absence and experience forsakenness, b) we feel God’s omnipresence and find it oppressive and terrifying, or c) we feel God’s presence and find it liberating and life-affirming. I suspect that in some sense, the truest reality is the experience of all three at the same time.

Prayer:
Holy Presence, you are before me, behind me, and on every side.

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 48: Visual Lessons

One of the most enjoyable (and sometimes confounding) parts of writing these devotionals is finding royalty-free art to share with you that fits the theme. This is challenging when the theme is something abstract, like “non-attachment,” but is often surprisingly challenging when the theme is something obvious.

It is especially difficult to find inclusive art that fits these themes in the public domain. Since I don’t have a budget to pay for good art produced by minority artists, I draw heavily from Wikimedia Commons.

As I’ve looked back over these devotionals, though, I find that there are visual lessons to be learned. Since I’ve just written about Arjuna’s vision, I thought this might be a good place to pause and engage our right brains a bit.

Part of the lesson of enlightenment is that our narrative brain needs to hush. Not everything can be explained with words. Sometimes it just needs to be seen.  So I’m going to recap some of my favorite visuals I’ve used over this series. Look at them. Pause over ones that seem to speak to you. Practice Visio Divina. (Click the images for the associated blog post and source info). 

Prayer: