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:

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 47: The Paradox of God

 
1280px-Daqing_Science_and_Technology_Museum_optical_illusion_pillars

Daqing Science and Technology Museum Optical Illusion Pillars, 2018, by Jason Zhang, from Wikimedia Commons

 

Overcome with his vision, Arjuna bows and worships. He says,

Lord of the gods, you are the abode of the universe. Changeless, you are what is and what is not, and beyond the duality of existence and nonexistence. (BG, 10:10-12)

There are two statements here that I think bear exploring. The first is that God is “changeless.” The second is that God is beyond “the duality of existence and nonexistence.”

Let’s look first at God’s changelessness. This is a common statement in both the Gita and the Bible. In the Bible, James says that God is one “with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change” (James 1:17, NRSV). The author of Hebrews says, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (13:8). Likewise Krishna says in the Gita, My true being is unborn and changeless. (BG, 4:5)

The tricky bit about this assertion is that we are saying it in spite of evidence to the contrary. In Arjuna’s world, Krishna is his chariot driver… which means there was a time when he was not employed as his chariot driver, which means he changed. In Christianity, Jesus was a man who was born and grew up. Are these not changes? He is a man who died. Is death not a change?

Not from a timeless perspective. Jesus has always been both alive and crucified, because he is “the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world” (Revelation 13:8).  All times are available to God, and God’s mercies are “new every day” (Lamentation 3:23). So while God is changeless from a perspective outside of time, God has joined us, and we are very much present within time.

The claim of incarnation is that God has chosen to dwell with us in time. God is still a God of history, who acts to free slaves and liberate the oppressed. The very act of creation and intervention makes God subject to time. It is an act of self-limiting, of creative destruction, which is present in every kind of art. The changeless one becomes subject to change, and this is one of the primary points of process theology. I quoted the Afrofuturist author Octavia Butler earlier: “All that you touch You Change. All that you Change, Changes you. The only lasting truth is Change. God is Change.”

Our understanding of God must accommodate these paradoxes, which brings me to the second one: God is beyond the duality of existence and non-existence. A God who is both changeless and becoming something else means that God must contain both being and non-being. This was theologian Paul Tillich’s main theme. God is not a “supreme being,” which would make God simply a thing among other things. God is Being Itself, or the “Ground of Being.” God is the Ultimate Reality, to whom even those who have died and no longer exist are still alive. We finite beings exist somewhere between being and non-being, and God dwells here with us, even as God contains both our being and non-being.

That’s a lot to chew on.

Prayer:
Changeless God of Being and Non-Being, your mercies are new every morning.

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 46: What Arjuna Saw

 
the-universe-1165

The Universe, by Hildegard of Bingen, from WikiArt

 

Krishna has told Arjuna who he is, but Arjuna insists on seeing for himself. Krishna then grants Arjuna a beatific vision, a theophany, and Arjuna is overcome.

Here is how Sanjaya, the narrator, describes it:

[Krishna] appeared with an infinite number of faces… clothed in celestial garments and covered with garlands, sweet-smelling with heavenly fragrances. If a thousand suns were to rise in the heavens at the same time, the blaze of their light would resemble the splendor of that supreme spirit. (BG, 10:10-12)

Arjuna continues by describing Krishna’s terrifying and complex form, filled with fire, surrounded by heavenly beings, “ancient sages and celestial serpents” (10:15). He goes on: your presence fills the heavens and the earth and reaches in every direction… the gods enter your being, some calling out and greeting you in fear. Great saints sing your glory, praying, “May all be well!” (10:20-21).

There are several similar visions of God in the Hebrew Bible.

I saw the Lord sitting on a high and exalted throne, the edges of his robe filling the temple. Winged creatures were stationed around him. …They shouted to each other, saying: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of heavenly forces! All the earth is filled with God’s glory!” (Isaiah 6:1-3)

Above the dome over [the angels’] heads, there appeared something like lapis lazuli in the form of a throne. Above the form of the throne there was a form that looked like a human being. Above what looked like his waist, I saw something like gleaming amber, something like fire enclosing it all around. Below what looked like his waist, I saw something that appeared to be fire. Its brightness shone all around. Just as a rainbow lights up a cloud on a rainy day, so its brightness shone all around. This was how the form of the Lord’s glory appeared. (Ezekiel 1:26-28).

Even though the Ten Commandments forbid making images of God, there are visions of God in the Bible. They don’t go into detail about God’s face. They spend more detail on what’s around God. Visions of God tend to focus on God’s enormity. There are references to bright light, impossibly colorful garments, jewels, odors, and often lesser divine beings who worship the Divine Presence. The whole experience is overwhelming.

But there is always the sense that this vision is just that: a vision. Our finite senses cannot adequately register the infinite. We are blinded by the sun, or we are seeing a funhouse mirror version of God, something distorted because we cannot fit God’s glory into the box of our understanding.

I’m reminded of the hymn “Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise,” by Walter Chalmers Smith. The author points out several times that God is only invisible because God is hidden by light: “In light inaccessible, hid from our eyes,” and “’Tis only the splendor of light hideth thee.”

We tend to think of God as somewhere else (like heaven), or as invisible, because we cannot see God. But God is hiding in plain sight—“in light inaccessible”—in the reality in front of us. We have to step outside our usual ways of seeing in order to see. This is why God is both hidden and revealed. The bright light and the glory are always present.

Prayer:
Lord, show me your glory.

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 45: The Bold Request

 
2048px-Pillars_of_creation_2014_HST_WFC3-UVIS_full-res_denoised

The Pillars of Creation, NASA, from Wikimedia Commons

 

Arjuna: Just as you have described your infinite glory, O Lord, now I long to see it. I want to see you as the supreme ruler of creation. O Lord, master of yoga, if you think me strong enough to behold it, show me your immortal self. (BG, 11:3-4) 

Moses makes a similar request in Exodus 33:18. After insisting that they will not go to the Promised Land unless God accompanies the Israelites, God reassures Moses that God will certainly go with them. Then Moses says, “Show me your glory.”

There is a long tradition in holy writing that seeing God comes with a risk. You will die, be driven mad, or be permanently changed. (And if you’re lucky, probably all three). So God grants Moses’ request, but with some conditions: Moses must hide in a cave, God will pass by, and Moses may come out and see God’s back. Seeing the face of your Creator will unmake you. Seeing God’s unfiltered glory is simply too much for us limited beings to handle.

In the Gita, the next long section of Chapter Eleven is narrated by Sanjaya (who is telling the story) and Arjuna. Krishna is silent for a moment while the author tells us what Arjuna sees. Toward the end, Arjuna says:

 I rejoice in seeing you as you have never been seen before, yet I am filled with fear by this vision of you as the abode of the universe. Please let me see you again as the shining God of gods (BG 11:45).

In other words, “tone it down a bit, please—just go back to being a God I can handle.” The vision pushes Arjuna to the limit. I cannot help but think of how Elijah also experienced God:

The Lord said, “Go out and stand at the mountain before the Lord. The Lord is passing by.” A very strong wind tore through the mountains and broke apart the stones before the Lord. But the Lord wasn’t in the wind. After the wind, there was an earthquake. But the Lord wasn’t in the earthquake. After the earthquake, there was a fire. But the Lord wasn’t in the fire. After the fire, there was a sound. Thin. Quiet. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his coat. He went out and stood at the cave’s entrance. (1 Kings 19:11-13).

Elijah knows that he is limited in his ability to see God’s presence unfiltered. He wraps his face in his coat because he knows the unfiltered vision of God carries risk. Yet he also understands that as spectacular as wind, earthquake, and fire are, they do not contain the presence of God. God is in the stillness.

The consistent message is that whatever we think God is, God is both more and not what we expect. God is Other, yet also strangely familiar.

Prayer:
Infinite Motion, Eternal Stillness, fill me with your presence. Help me to hear and see You.

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 44: I’ll Tell You Who I Am

 
Detail_of_Shekinah

Detail of Elenita de Jesús our Shekinah, by by Puerto Rican artist and art therapist Tamara Liz, LMHC, from Wikimedia Commons

 

Arjuna: Tell me all your divine attributes, leaving nothing unsaid. Tell me of the glories with which you fill the cosmos. (BG, 10:16) 

When we start trying to talk about God, we quickly realize a couple of things: 1) God is indescribable, and 2) most language—even when it’s not about God—is metaphorical. The Bible is full of metaphors about God. God is a rock, a stronghold (2 Samuel 22:2-3), a master-builder and architect (Psalm 127:1), a mother eagle caring for chicks in her nest (Deuteronomy 32:11).

The second half of Chapter Ten of the Bhagavad Gita is mostly a series of metaphors. Among stars, he is the sun; among weapons, a thunderbolt; among mountains, he is the Himalayas; Among bodies of water, he is the ocean; among rivers, he is the Ganges. All of these metaphors are comparisons, and usually Krishna is the biggest, best, or most spectacular. He also uses examples from history, myth, and legend: Among priests I am Brihispati, and among military leaders I am Skanda (10:24).

Occasionally Krishna throws in a comparison that breaks the metaphor or that forces us to reconsider the pattern: Among the forces which restrain I am Yama, the god of death (10:29). Toward the end of this section, he makes a turn: Among the Vrishnis I am Krishna, and among the Pandavas, I am Arjuna… I am the silence of the unknown and the wisdom of the wise (10:37-38). 

He bookends this section by pointing, again, to the divine Atman in every being. He says at the beginning of his monologue: I am the true Self in the heart of every creature, Arjuna, and the beginning, middle, and end of their existence (10:20). And he returns at the end: I am the seed that can be found in every creature, Arjuna; for without me nothing can exist, neither animate nor inanimate (10:39).

I think the author intends us to bump up against the limits of language. How do we describe the Great Mystery in which we live and move and have our being? Even the verb “describe,” which means to put into writing, indicates the limits of language. The etymology of “scribe” is to cut or to trace, to outline. Similarly “define” is to limit or place a boundary, to make finite. By definition, God is limitless, that without boundary. We often think of God as “The Supreme Being,” but Paul Tillich pointed out that God cannot a being, but Being Itself. God is not like a large river among rivers, like a things among other things. 

I believe that is why God’s enigmatic name in the Hebrew scriptures is simply I am who I am (Exodus 3:14). There is no boundary we can place around God, no point at which we can say God ends and something else begins.

All of this sets up the cosmic vision which comes next.

Prayer:
Divine and Indescribable Word, our faltering words can reflect you, but they cannot hold you.

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 43: Fruit of the Spirit

 
1214px-Pomegranate_fruit

The fruit of a pomegranate, by fir0002 (flagstaffotos [at] gmail.com), from Wikimedia Commons

 

Discrimination, wisdom, understanding, forgiveness, truth, self-control, and peace of mind; pleasure and pain, birth and death, fear and courage, honor and dishonor; nonviolence, charity, equanimity, contentment, and perseverance in spiritual disciplines—all the different qualities found in living creatures have their source in me. (BG, 10:4-5) 

Compare the above passage to this one from the Bible:

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against things like this. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the self with its passions and its desires. (Galatians 5:22-24)

There is an important difference in these two lists. The Gita includes, in the middle of its list of virtues, a set of “pairs of opposites”—pleasure and pain, birth and death, fear and courage, honor and dishonor. All of these are things which Krishna has encouraged Arjuna to see as illusory opposites, things which are neither good or bad, but which anyone pursuing an enlightened path will experience as part of life.

These illusory opposites are nested within a list of virtues that we see as good: wisdom, forgiveness, self-control, nonviolence, charity, self-control. Moreover, the illusory opposites of pleasure and pain, birth and death, fear and courage are things that happen to us, whereas the others are descriptors of character.

Instead of being “found in living creatures,” which is a passive phrase, the Feuerstein translation says that all of these things are “states of existence” of the beings “who arise in all of their diversity from Me.” For Krishna, this is our “natural” state of being, when we see things as they truly are.

Paul likewise calls these virtues “fruit” of the Spirit, something that grows naturally. The natural growth of this fruit is compromise by our lower, deluded “self” that wants stupid, temporary things. Once we let that self die, we can have what the Spirit wants to grow in us.

We sometimes refer to this type of writing as a “virtue list” (contrasted with “vice list,” like Galatians 5:19-21). But I think it’s important to point out in both of these that the authors are arguing that these qualities are natural. They emerge from us as qualities of the God who created us, and the Spirit who lives inside of us. They are not qualities we have to grit our teeth and strive for, because they are already part of us. If we tend to the root, staying connected to the One who Pervades the Universe, God will take care of the fruit.

Prayer:
Root of all that is lovely and good, grow your virtues within me.