March 20, 2017: Reading the Bhagavad Gita in the Age of Trump


Soon after we began reading the Bhagavad Gita, I was listening to a radio news show, I think it was NPR’s All Things Considered, and learned that Steve Bannon is a big fan of the Gita. Checking this out online, I discovered that Heinrich Himmler was also an admirer. He evidently kept a leather bound copy with him at all times. So we have Bannon, the architect of Trump’s policy agenda, and Himmler, the architect of the Nazi “Final Solution,” twisting the ideal of dharma to serve their twisted worldview. Two sociopaths fixated on the Gita’s notion of righteous war to justify their own pathologies. If you want an example of the dangers of belief, I give you this: Himmler believed Hitler was an incarnation of Krishna. One can only hope Bannon is not similarly deluded about the monster he serves.

It does give one pause.
And begs the question: How do we discern truth from belief?

The Bhagavad Gita may use the notion of “righteous war” to start a conversation. But the conversation is not about war. It’s about consciousness. The conversation between Arjuna and Krishna is a mirror of the conversation that goes on inside of us all the time. The conversation between the small self or ego (what we refer to in Yoga as the “I-maker”) and the Great Self of the Heart. And by “Heart,” I mean the ineffable hugeness that doesn’t speak in words. It’s more like a quivering or shimmering from deep within us. In those miraculous moments when we ground there, we embody everything the Gita teaches. In fact, in those miraculous moments, we are the Gita.

What Bannon doesn’t understand now and what Himmler didn’t understand then, is that we don’t go to war against the “other,” we go to war against that inside of us which creates the idea of “other.” We go to war inside of ourselves against the notion that we are somehow separate from and entitled to destroy that “other.” We go to war against this outmoded paradigm that has always been questionable and has demonstrated over a few thousand years that the only thing it excels at is making a tremendous mess of everything it touches.

We have to read the Gita the same way we should live our lives. We have to slip beneath the surface, read between the lines. We have to probe deeper and deeper, within a text, within ourselves, until the mind becomes so spacious, so still, that the “I”’ that drives the historical, cultural, psycho-emotional, and spiritual narratives that rule us ceases to be. Only in that stillness is the possibility of insight, and only in that insight, the possibility of truth. Anything that comes before that must be questioned.

I was talking with someone recently who was feeling very uncertain about her own gifts, and along with that, judging herself for not being more certain. This is the trap of dualistic thinking. It’s not about hard-edged certainty or soft edgeless uncertainty. Certainty and uncertainty are opposite poles of a stuckness that is quite destructive either way. What we want to develop is clarity. Which is neither certainty nor uncertainty. It’s just clarity. In that koan-like way Verse 2.16 so eloquently sings: “Nonbeing can never be; being can never not be. Both these statements are obvious to those who have seen the truth.’

Here’s my dharma talk from February 6. Which was Bhagavad Gita Talk #2, a rather freewheeling contemplation on the first forty or so verses from Chapter Two, The Practice of Yoga.

Here are the verses from this talk.  (If you’re visiting this blog for the first time, please note we’re working with Stephen Mitchell’s translation of the Bhagavad Gita. See my last post for more on that.)

Although you mean well, Arjuna
your sorrow is sheer delusion.
Wise men do not grieve
for the dead or the living.

Never was there a time
when I did not exist, or you,
or these kings; nor will there come
a time when we cease to be.

Just as, in this body, the Self
passes through childhood, youth,
and old age, so after death
it passes to another body.

Physical sensations—cold
and heat, pleasure and pain —
are transient: they come and go:
so bear them patiently, Arjuna.

Only the man who is unmoved
by any sensations, the wise man
indifferent to pleasure, to pain,
is fit for becoming deathless.

Nonbeing can never be;
being can never not be.
Both these statements are obvious
to those who have seen the truth.

The presence that pervades the universe
is imperishable, unchanging,
beyond both is and is not:
how could it ever vanish?

These bodies come to an end;
but the vast embodied Self
is ageless, fathomless, eternal.
Therefore you must fight, Arjuna.

If you think the Self can kill
or think that it can be killed,
you do not well understand
reality’s subtle ways.

It never was born; coming
to be, it will never not be.
Birthless, primordial, it does not
die when the body dies.

Knowing that it is eternal,
unborn, beyond destruction,
how could you ever kill?
And whom could you kill, Arjuna?

Just as you throw out used clothes
and put on other clothes, new ones,
the Self discards its used bodies
and puts on others that are new.

The sharpest sword will not pierce it;
the hottest flame will not singe it;
water will not make it moist;
wind will not cause it to wither.

It cannot be pierced or singed,
moistened or withered; it is vast,
perfect and all-pervading,
calm, immovable, timeless.

It is called the Inconceivable,
the Unmanifest, the unchanging.
If you understand it in this way,
you have no reason for sorrow.

Even if you think that the Self
is perpetually born and perpetually
dies—even then, Arjuna,
you have no reason for your sorrow.<

Before birth, beings are unmanifest;
between birth and death, manifest;
at death, unmanifest again.
What cause for grief in all this?

Some perceive it directly
in all its awesomeness; others
hear of it and never know it.

This Self who dwells in the body
is inviolable, forever;
therefore you have no cause to grieve
for any being Arjuna.

Know what your duty is
and do it without hesitation/
For a warrior, there is nothing better
than a battle that duty enjoins.

Blessed are the warriors who are given
the chance of a battle like this,
which calls them to do what is right
and opens the gates of heaven.

But if you refuse the call
to a righteous war, and shrink from
what duty and honor dictate,
you will bring down ruin on your head.

Decent men, for all time,
will talk about your disgrace;
and disgrace, for a man of honor,
is a fate far worse than death.

These great heroes will think
that fear has driven you from battle;
all those who once esteemed you
will think of you with contempt.

And your enemies will sneer and mock you:
“The mighty Arjuna, that brave man—
he slunk from the field like a dog.”
What deeper shame could there be?

If you are killed, you gain heaven;
triumph and you gain the earth.
Therefore stand up, Arjuna;
steady your mind to fight.

Indifferent to gain or loss,
to victory or defeat,
prepare yourself for the battle
and do not succumb to sin.

This is philosophy’s wisdom:
now hear the wisdom of yoga.
Armed with this understanding,
you will shatter your karmic bonds.

On this path no effort is wasted,
no gain is ever reversed;
even a little of this practice
will shelter you from great sorrow.

And as often is the case, the final word goes to Mary Oliver:


Somewhere down beach, in the morning, at water’s edge, I found
   a sea turtle,
its huge head a smoldering apricot, its shell streaming with
its eyes closed, its flippers motionless.
When I bent down, it moved a little.
When I picked it up, it sighed.
Was it forty pounds, or fifty pounds, or a hundred?
Was it two miles back to the car?
We walked a little while, and then we rested, and then we
   walked on
I walked with my mouth open, my heart roared.
The eyes opened, I don’t know what they thought.
Sometimes the flippers swam at the air.
Sometimes the eyes closed.
I couldn’t walk anymore, and then I walked some more
while it turned into granite, or cement, but with that
   apricot-colored head,
that stillness, that Buddha-like patience, that cold-shocked
   but slowly beating heart.
Finally, we reached the car.


The afternoon is the other part of this story.
Have you ever found something beautiful, and maybe just in time?
How such a challenge can fill you!
Jesus could walk over the water.
I had to walk ankle-deep in the sand, and I did it.
My bones didn’t quite snap.

 Come on in, and see me smile.
I probably won’t stop for hours.
Already, in the warmth, the turtle has raised its head, is
   looking around.
Today, who could deny it, I am an important person.

–Mary Oliver, House of Light

March 14, 2017: Reading the Bhagavad Gita in the Age of Trump

daffodils and snow


In the weeks between the November election and January inauguration, the great majority of us on the other side of madness were in shock, beginning to mobilize, but also holding out hope that somehow, some way, this political nightmare would be averted. Time seemed to stand still, and then, it was done. We found ourselves waking up in a whole new reality, waking up in an America we did not recognize, waking up in the age of Trump.

And now it’s March. In just six days it will be Spring. Although here on the East coast we’re being slammed by winter weather we barely had all winter. Last week, sixty degrees and daffodils blooming. Today they’re buried under the snow. The sweet promise of new life and renewal postponed for the time being.

Which brings me to the Bhagavad Gita. When I was younger in my journey, I devoured texts like this one. I couldn’t get enough. These last years though I’ve mostly stayed away from them. Partly it’s the patriarchal language, partly what sometimes seems a jungle of verbiage. At this stage of my life, I way prefer the naked simplicity of Mary Oliver’s poetry and Robert Bly’s Kabir.

And yet, the Bhagavad Gita is a powerful compendium of the yogic system. And has a great deal to say about waking up, about the difference between authentic power and something that pretends to be. About true greatness of soul and that empty charade that is grandiosity and smallness. Like so many of India’s ancient wisdom texts, no one knows for sure when this one was written. Scholars date it sometime between the fifth century B.C.E and first century C.E.The wonder of it is, it’s incredibly relevant for now.

Because along with articulating the philosophy and psychology of Yoga, the Gita offers a rather precise technology for strengthening ourselves from the inside out, so we can not only meet, but act effectively, to counter the dangers of this time. There is so much work to do. So many moving parts. So many different voices and needs to attend to. It’s easy to lose focus, burn out, numb out, and feel overwhelmed. Working with the Gita offers a steadying, sobering, and heart-drenched medicine for standing strong in the face of that and those who dare to cause harm…

The edition we’re using is Stephen Mitchell’s Bhagavad Gita: A New Translation. My scholar friends will thumb their noses, but I do like his version. Perhaps it’s Mitchell’s long training in Zen. True to the text and written with great respect and reverence, there’s a spareness in his writing I respond to. The Introduction alone is superb. Mitchell really gets it! Here’s how he opens:

One of the best ways of entering the Bhagavad Gita is through the enthusiasm of Emerson and Thoreau, our first two America sages. Emerson mentions the Gita often in his Journals, with the greatest respect…

It was the first of books; it was as if an empire spake to us, nothing small or unworthy but large, serene, consistent, the voice of an old intelligence which in another age and climate had pondered and thus disposed of the same questions which exercise us.

What a revelation the Gita must have been for minds predisposed to its largehearted vision of the world. And what a delight to stand behind Emerson and Thoreau, reading over their shoulders as they discover this “stupendous and cosmogonal” poem in which, from the other side of the globe, across so many centuries, they can hear the voice of the absolutely genuine. Here is a kinsman, an elder brother, telling them truths that they already, though imperfectly, know, truths that are vital to them and to us all. In the Gita’s wisdom, as in an ancient, clear mirror, they find that they can recognize themselves….

And here’s how he closes:

The healthiest way to begin reading and absorbing a text like the Bhagavad Gita is to understand that ultimately it has nothing to teach. Everything essential that it points to—what we call wisdom or radiance or peace—is already present inside us. Once we have practiced meditation sincerely and seen layer after layer of the inauthentic fall away, we come to a place where dualities such as sacred and profane, spiritual and unspiritual fall away.

Zen Master Hsueh-feng asked a monk where he had come from.The monk said, “From the Monastery of Spiritual Light.”

The Master said, “In the daytime, we have sunlight, in the evening, we have lamplight. What is spiritual light?”

The monk couldn’t answer.

The Master said, “Sunlight. Lamplight.”

In that place, God is the ground we walk on, the food we eat, and the gratitude we express, to no one in particular, as naturally as breathing.

* * * * *

How’s that for a beautiful (and over the top tantric) definition of God.

Here’s the audio of my first Dharma Talk on the Gita. This is from January 30, 2017. I also want to add that for no rational reason I can articulate, but from the shakti that informs my work, the mantras we’ve been chanting this cycle are Om Tara Tuttare Ture Swaha and Namo Kuan Shih Yin P’u-Sa. This talk opens with a just shy of 3-minute explication of the Tara mantra.