The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 35: Two Natures

 
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An artist’s depiction of the binary star series, J0806; by NASA, from Wikimedia Commons

 

In these two aspects of my nature is the womb of all creation. The birth and dissolution of the cosmos itself takes place in me. There is nothing that exists separate from me, Arjuna. The entire universe is suspended from me as my necklace of jewels.  (BG, 7:6-7) 

We looked at the feminine imagery of this passage yesterday. Now let’s take a brief dip into metaphysics.

Krishna has been talking about “two natures,” a lower nature and a higher nature. In Hindu philosophy these are usually called prakriti and purusha, or “the elements” and “pure consciousness.” Here, Krishna calls the higher nature jiva-bhuta, or life-force.

These two natures don’t map directly onto Western categories like human and divine, or matter and spirit. We’ll notice a difference when we start listing the elements: earth, water, fire, air, ether, mind, intellect, and ego. The “elements” in this system include both tangible and intangible aspects of our world, including our own thoughts, feelings, and narratives. The experience of our subjective selves, in Hindu philosophy, is very much a part of the material world.

There are three gunas, states or forces, that act upon the elements: tamas (tending toward disorder, delusion, and inaction), rajas (tending toward desire, the ego, and passion), and sattva (tending toward enlightenment and unity). These are the forces of evolution and change.

Krishna is saying that both changeable realm of prakriti and the unchangeable purusha are part of the divine dance of creation and destruction. There is a place where we experience time and change and separateness, and there is a place where we experience Oneness, where all times are now. These two places are connected; they are part of the same reality. This divine dance is “The Womb of Creation,” Krishna says.

This mystical awareness of the unity of all things is difficult to put into words, and metaphysics is our attempt to do so: to try to describe how our essential unity—we are all part of the same reality—can be experienced as separateness, as me and you and dog and tree and rock and ocean, as thought and emotion and this Self that is neither, both, and more. Trying to understand the elements of reality is like putting creation under a microscope so that we can understand the big picture.   

When Krishna says There is nothing that exists separate from me, I also hear Paul quoting a pagan poet, saying that God is the one in whom we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28). The Womb of God is such a powerful metaphor, especially because even though we are “born,” we are still present in God. There’s nowhere we can go and be “outside of God,” because all of creation is still inside, and still part of God, and God is in every strand of creation’s DNA.

Prayer:
God in Whom we live and move and have our being, overcome our illusions of independence.

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 7: Facing Death

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© Tomas Castelazo, http://www.tomascastelazo.com / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

 

Krishna says to Arjuna that he need not despair about the coming battle. He can approach it in almost a detached way if he thinks differently about his despair, and if he changes how he thinks about the nature of reality. Psychologists call this “metacognition”—how we think about thinking. It is a principle of Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) that if I change my thinking, I can change how I feel. I’ll share more about this in the coming weeks.

Krishna tells him 1) that the Self is imperishable and cannot die, 2) that pain and pleasure are simply data, and cannot touch the Self unless we let them. Then he says

O mighty Arjuna, even if you believe the Self to be subject to birth and death, you should not grieve. Death is inevitable for the living; birth is inevitable for the dead. Since these are unavoidable, you should not sorrow. (BG 2:26-27)

Whatever you believe about life after death—whether our souls wing their way to heaven, get reborn in another form, or simply cease to exist—our fear of death is not rational. It may be functional, in that it keeps us alive by helping us avoid playing in traffic or juggling hand grenades. But death is part of life; if we’re in for a penny, we’re in for a pound. It doesn’t benefit us to worry too much about it. Or, as Jesus says:

Who among you by worrying can add a single moment to your life?… Therefore, stop worrying about tomorrow, because tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.  (Matthew 6:27 & 34)

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus doesn’t tell us not to worry because our soul is immortal and we cannot truly die. He says God will take care of us, and he implies even if we do die permanently, there is no sense worrying about it.

People who are not religious often claim that religion is simply a way to comfort people in the face of death. And religions often do construct elaborate mental models about what happens when we die — we might go to heaven or hell, get reincarnated, merge with a cosmic consciousness, time travel, or wake up to a new reality. But in the great wisdom traditions, the sages point out even if none of these are true, why worry?

The stoic philosophers present a similar idea. Epictetus said, “I cannot escape death, but at least I can escape the fear of it.” It doesn’t mean death and loss don’t affect us, but we can face them squarely. So much of our life’s energy is wasted trying to avoid death and the pain of loss, but as Seneca said, “It’s better to conquer grief than to deceive it.”

Qoholeth, the Teacher in Ecclesiastes, spends a lot of time on these questions:

Who knows if a human being’s life-breath rises upward while an animal’s life-breath descends into the earth? So I perceived that there was nothing better for human beings but to enjoy what they do because that’s what they’re allotted in life. Who, really, is able to see what will happen in the future? (Ecclesiastes 3:21-22).

These wise teachers do not speak about what they do not know. Instead they say the worst case scenario is that we face death with courage, knowing it is inevitable and finding meaning in our actions even if we fail. This is an important point, and it often gets left out of religious doctrine and summaries of teaching: The wisest among us acknowledge that we could be wrong. Maybe there is no heaven, or resurrection, or reincarnation, or union with God. Maybe we just end. And maybe that’s not so bad.

But the best-case scenario is that there is the possibility that there is something better already at hand; not only that we can have eternal life and union with God when we die, but that we can have it right now in this life. On this point, both Jesus and Krishna agree.

Prayer:
Source of Life, help me to love life the way you do, so much so that I no longer fear death.

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 6: Introducing the Self

Atman

Click image for source

 

Atman is usually translated as self, soul, or breath. It is a basic concept in Hinduism and Buddhism. The sages put the Self under a microscope through meditation and introspection, and understood their practice to be a voyage of discovery.

Today, modern psychology, neuroscience, and even physics and mathematics are wrestling with the notion of consciousness. What is this thing that I understand to be my self? Am I a soul in a body, like a “ghost in a machine?” Am I a thing, an event, an illusion, or an emergent property of the universe? Regardless of how we understand it, neuroscientists have learned—or simply affirmed—that the practices taught by Hindu sages for thousands of years actually work for our mental health.

The impermanent has no reality; reality lies in the eternal. Those who have seen the boundary between these two have attained the end [goal] of all knowledge. Realize that which pervades the universe and is indestructible; no power can affect this unchanging, imperishable reality. The body is mortal, but that which dwells in the body is immortal and immeasurable. Therefore, Arjuna, fight in this battle. (BG 2:16-18)

Just in case you forgot, the last line reminds us that the context of this philosophical discussion is a battlefield. Though the battle is part of the impermanent world, it is still a battle that must be engaged.

One believes he is slayer, another believes he is slain. Both are ignorant; there is neither slayer nor slain. You were never born; you will never die. You have never changed; you can never change. Unborn, eternal, immutable, immemorial, you do not die when your body dies. (BG 2:19-20)

Is this comforting or disconcerting? If our souls are imperishable, then why does killing matter at all? After all, Christian crusaders who captured Jerusalem justified the indiscriminate killing of Muslims, Jews, and Christians by saying, “Kill them all; God will sort the dead.” Christian theology (and other religious thinking) has often dismissed injustices in this world and unnecessary suffering by offering people “pie in the sky by and by.” White evangelicals still insist that saving souls, not social justice, should be the main goal of the church.

I think the sages would say that this kind of thinking is unenlightened. Such people do not understand the true nature of the Self.

In contrast to Hindu scriptures and Greek philosophers, Jewish and Christian scriptures do not spend a lot of time on metaphysics. This is one reason there are so many different understandings of what happens when we die. Are we a soul trapped in a body? Or are we a “psychosomatic unity,” a soul-and-body mashed together, which can die permanently, but has the hope of resurrection? Our doctrines point to the second explanation, but I grew up hearing the first more often in church.

Something Jesus said corresponds to Krishna’s words to Arjuna:

Don’t be afraid of those who kill the body but can’t kill the soul [psyche]. Instead, be afraid of the one who can destroy both body and soul in [Gehenna]. (Matthew 10:28).

The first part of the saying affirms that there is part of us that survives death; but the second rejects that it is eternal. I honestly don’t think there is enough here to hang a doctrine of the soul on. From the Bible we have a handful of parables about souls—a few clearly intended for humor value—some poetry, and some references to breath and resurrection, but nothing about what consciousness is.  

The Hebrew Bible doesn’t say much about souls in part, I believe, because they had escaped slavery in Egypt, and Egyptian religion was all about souls. The Egyptians had an elaborate metaphysics about the soul (ka). The Pharaohs filled their tombs with gold that they could take to the afterlife, while countless slaves labored to build their fine cities. The escaped slaves wanted nothing to do with the religion of their oppressors, who viewed the afterlife as more important than this one.

That’s not to say that there isn’t plenty about consciousness in Christian tradition and mysticism. One of my favorite hymns is For the Beauty of the Earth by Folliott S. Pierpoint:

For the joy of ear and eye,
   For the heart and brain’s delight,
For the mystic harmony
   Linking sense to sound and sight.

It’s a beautiful lyric, but the place I want to draw your attention is to this “mystic harmony”—because there is no Christian metaphysical explanation about how our nervous system interacts with a non-physical soul. The Bhagavad Gita delves into this metaphysics. The Bible is mum.

Prayer:
Eternal God, you revealed to Moses that your name is I AM. Teach me who you are, and who I am.