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.
[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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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 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.