This past month the yoga teacher trainees at Karuna were assigned to read the Bhagavad Gita. In preparation for the workshop taught by Satyanarayana Dasa at Karuna a few weeks ago, students were asked to answer the following questions:
i. What is Karma?
ii. How is work transformed into worship?
iii. Why does the Gita offer many alternative paths of practice?
iv. What is the Gita’s position on polytheism?
v. What are the obstacles to the recognition of divinity in each of us? What do you suggest as a practice to enable each person to identify the “self” as distinct from the body?
Megan Frazier is a current student in the 200/hr Teacher Training. She also teaches anatomy at Karuna. This is her response.
Before I answer these questions, I feel that I must honestly say how much I have struggled with reading the Bhagavad Gita. Unlike most of what I have been exposed to in this training, I do not feel aligned with much of what I have been reading. I have sought out different translations and tried listening to a recording. I have 5 versions at home right now including “a walk through for westerners,” “annotated and explained,” and even a children’s book. I have not made it all the way through any version except the children’s book and I am finding that I have difficulty getting past the content and hearing the message that lies beneath the parable. It feels wrong to me that the conclusion of the lesson that all of our experiences are an illusion is that Arjuna should go ahead and kill his friends and family members. We are told that he is “Duty-bound” to “protect his honor” and these do not sit with me as God-supported actions but as the samskaras of centuries of patriarchal thinking and acting. Just as the Bible was written by men (not by God), this text also seems to have been written down by men and contains their inherent and cultural biases. I don’t know how to get completely past that skepticism to appreciate the song of God that is presented.
What is Karma?.
Karma is one of those words that seems to be frequently misused. Something bad will happen to someone and they will say “that was bad Karma.” It doesn’t seem correct to me to say that Karma could be good or bad, based on what I read in the Gita. Nor does it seem to be quite as simple as “I have bad Karma and that’s why something bad just happened to me. “ There seems to be more than one definition for Karma within the Gita, but the one that resonated most with me was this: “Whatever we do and whatever we are is the consequence of samskaras deposited in the mental body by our thoughts, words and deeds of past lives. These impressions, carried in latent form into our next life, determine our future temperament and destiny.”1 This is a more nuanced way of saying “you reap what you sow.” What I like about the idea of Karma is that it inserts some personal responsibility into the theology. Without that concept, the ideas in the Gita would overwhelm me. If everything flows back to the divinity, if there is one God responsible for everything I experience, then why should I bother to act? Why would my actions matter? Karma teaches me that my actions do matter, and that although there may be many lifetimes before I reach union with the divinity, I can make choices in this lifetime that will move “me” in that direction (though it seems strange to say “me” when I am talking about union with God!)
.How is work transformed into worship?
This question is harder for me to understand. I believe that the Gita tells us that we need to do our worldly work, we need to persist in action, but that we need to do so without attachment. When I translate that into my own situation, here is my interpretation: I work with very challenged children in very challenged families and social situations. If this is truly my work (which I am still trying to figure out), it is correct for me to do my work (as opposed to staying home and praying and doing yoga or watching TV all day!) But it is incorrect for me to expect or become attached to the outcomes, to changing the children or the families, or to improve or take them out of their situations. The other piece is that if we work “with our heart fixed on the divinity”2 our work can become sacred. This thought is comforting to me, because work can get caught up in so many struggles of the mind – am I paid enough? Am I appreciated enough? Can I get health insurance? Am I passionate about my work every day? Making a shift to fix my heart on the divinity through the work day is a good strategy to escape all these thoughts which, in truth, are NOT my work.
Why does the Gita offer many alternative paths of practice?
Even though I have been working on reading this work since last month, I guess I have not read or understood enough to really take in that this is what the Gita is doing. I was able to learn from searching for more information that three of the paths are considered Karma Yoga (selfless action), Bhakti yoga (devotion) and Jnana yoga (self transcending knowledge) but this is not what I learned from the reading that I did. I imagine that the reason for multiple paths is because there is so much complexity in the relationship between personhood and the divine; each path perhaps provides a unique set of lessons or lens through which to understand the path as well as the destination (which is the same for all three paths).
What is the Gita’s position on polytheism?
I understand the Gita to be saying that there is only one God, that everything is the Godhead. “Whatever form of God people choose to worship in good faith, it is I, the Godhead, who makes their faith steady and unwavering. I do this to help them evolve stage by stage along their spiritual path” (7:21). I interpret this to mean that someone who professes to worship a “different” God is not actually doing so, but instead has not progressed far enough along his or her spiritual path (influenced by his or her Karma) to understand that it is this One God (who is speaking through Krishna) that he or she is worshipping.
What are the obstacles to the recognition of divinity in each of us?
What do you suggest as a practice to enable each person to identify the “self” as distinct from the body? The primary obstacles, I believe, are the samskaras of the individual hand in hand with the conflation of the self with the self’s desires. When we derive our satisfaction/contentment or sense of rightness from the fulfillment of our desires, we are compelled to do whatever it takes to keep getting our desires met. The solution to this is discussed in the Gita as well as in the Sutras: the balance of practice and dispassion, abhyasa and vairagyam, will permit an individual to cultivate detachment from desire while also helping to lessen the hold that our samskaras have over our habits/actions. My image for the samskaras is like an Etch-A-Sketch, and there are some pathways very clearly marked. The purpose of our practice is to create the potential for all the pathways to be available to us equally (all the silvery Etch-a-Sketch coating to be removed) so that we can act based on what is the best choice for our Karma and not simply as dictated by our samskaras.
1. Bhagavad Gita: Annotated and Explained. Translation by Shri Purohit Swami, Annotation by Kendra Crossen Burroughs. Woodstock, VT; Skylight Illuminations;2001. Pages 28-30
2. The Bhagavad Gita: A Walkthrough for Westerners. Hawley, Jack. Novato, CA. New World Library. 2001.
Megan Frazier has always loved the exploration of the body, both as a dancer and as an anatomist. She holds an MS in physical therapy as well as an MFA in Dance and a BS in biology. She currently practices physical therapy in both pediatric and geriatric settings, and is an adjunct neuroanatomy instructor at Springfield College. Megan was first introduced to yoga in high school by her modern dance teacher, and finds that yoga practice deeply enhances her anatomical exploration.