ACHARYA DAS: Namaste and welcome. So today we’re doing topic number 7 on this 8-part series. And before we begin this talk on Bhagavad-gita I’d like to invite you to join with us in the kirtan meditation, this chanting of this transcendental sound to purify our hearts and minds and bring peacefulness to us in this very troubled world. Something that you’re probably going to be familiar with; if not, the mantra will be on the screen underneath.
Aum Hari Aum kirtan
So today’s topic is actually quite interesting. It’s a term that’s used by quite a number of people, about “being spiritual but not religious”. So we often hear this spoken about in the field of yoga and people that really want to truly consider themselves as being on a more spiritual path. And I would like to speak about that subject from the point of view of the teachings of the Bhagavad-gita.
So when—or perhaps a better question is why: Why do people use this phrase? And there is no doubt that many people have some, if not negative, at least they are a little bit defensive about what’s commonly perceived as being religion.
Well, one of the differences that’s being obviously pointed out in this phrase, is the idea of an individual journey or an individual path, as opposed to like joining a team or a church or a group. It has to do with an individual endeavour, and the reality is that spiritual life, even if we are in the company of like-minded people, should actually always be, and is, an individual pursuit.
There is also this idea that religion, or religious faith means a number of kind of ideas.
One is the idea of a centralised organisation or authority, a church or some ecclesiastical authority that has a prescribed dogma that everybody must accept and you cannot stray outside of that dogma.
There is also this idea of actually having to join, that in joining a particular religious faith or an organisation or a church, however you want to say it, that by the act of joining you fundamentally become saved. And of course there will be something that you must do in order to join. They refer to it often as surrendering your life to God or to Jesus Christ or to some spiritual personality, but it’s all part of this bigger idea of actually joining something and thereby being saved or liberated.
There is also this thought; people that often use this phrase, they feel a little aversion to the idea of people somehow just following rituals and going through the motions as if that is going to be a real answer to their spiritual quest. Almost like, I’m hesitant to say, thoughtless, but kind of like just going through the motions. I mean I had that experience to some degree as a child. I was raised as a Roman Catholic and you are taught certain things you have to do and things that you follow and when you attend the Mass there are times to stand and kneel and everything. And if somebody else is going to come into the church—I can remember people from another group that were reaching out and doing this ecumenical sort of thing; they were a little concerned about what should they be doing when and—I remember overhearing one of them saying, “Well we’ll just follow everybody, what they’re doing, we’ll just go along with it.” So this idea of this kind of like ritual and everything and there’s not really an understanding of what is actually being done.
And this is somewhat tied to also, this concept of blind faith, that my just blindly having faith and following, that somehow everything’s going to work out okay. And a person that may espouse this idea of wanting to be more spiritual and religious generally against the idea of just blindly accepting something.
So there other things that we will talk about, particularly from the perspective of the Bhagavad-gita but one of the primary considerations between what is categorised as religion or religious faith and spirituality, it has a lot to do with how one receives spiritual knowledge. What is the system for receiving spiritual knowledge?
Within the confines or the ideas of a religion the central authority is a church or a temple or a religious institution and this is the actual meaning of the word ecclesiastical, which means literally “of the church”. So it’s like you have this organization or this body that has power and it has authority, and that if you are to receive information I must affiliate myself with and become part of this body or this organization or this church.
The Vedic system for acquiring knowledge is actually completely different. There is no idea taught, or no concept, of a central authority like an institution or an organization that possesses—that is “empowered” by God and possesses all authority. That just does not exist within the system of the Vedas. That’s the spiritual system, if I can use that word. The term that is used to describe one’s connecting with God and receiving knowledge, they have this term Guru Parampara. And I will explain that in a little detail in just a few minutes. It’s a very interesting and very wonderful idea. This word parampara means like the passing on from one to another of something and in this case it is spiritual knowledge.
Now if we look first at the ecclesiastical system or process, a person’s relationship is actually going to be with the church or an institution. People refer to themself as being an Anglican or a Methodist or a Catholic or Muslim. They generally use these terms to describe their affiliation with an institution or a body. And a person is often given this idea that somehow there needs to be some sort of process of like if I can put it this way, “surrendering to the Church”. I accept them as—this church, and the authorities within this church - the hierarchy - as being spiritual teachers, and they possess the Absolute Truth and I must surrender to this institution.
In this system you will generally see that the highest authorities within this organization, within a church or whatever is somehow appointed. There will always be some system where—of like election or appointment to somebody in the highest chair, whether it is an Archbishop within a—for instance the Church of England, or the Pope within the Roman Catholic Church. You have somebody that has gained that highest positon through some election process or some appointment process and then that system rolls all the way down and the individual who has joined a particular religion or church, they relate to a priest or a minister or someone who has been placed there. Someone has designated that person as being in charge of this parish, or this particular area and then your relationship with God is going to be, pretty much, in the hands of and in relation to this person that’s been designated as your representative of God, that you are going to go listen to in the church, that you are going to pray with and who’s going to give you guidance.
So this line of authority originates in the institution. And then you have a topmost person or sometimes a group that is elected or voted upon and then you have individual members of the hierarchy who have undergone some training and study in the particular doctrine. And they’re sort of like assigned to you as this is who you’re going to deal with. This is who you’re going to relate to and help you cultivate your relationship with God. So there is this feature of appointed authority.
In the system of Guru Parampara it is actually quite extraordinary that no one is appointed to the position of being a spiritual authority. No one is appointed. Number one, there is no one single institution. And of course this boggles the Western mind where people are very much shaped by their experience for generations, hundreds of years. Everybody’s shaped by this idea. Whereas in the Eastern world you have a whole other unique experience for people.
The understanding was that if I wanted to progress spiritually then I need to seek out, myself, I need to seek out a bona fide representative of God. It was my job to do that. There was no one—of course it became common as systems become more influenced by materialistic ideas, where you had sort of like family traditions and family gurus and stuff and people accepted things out of some tradition. But there was this underlying current that a true seeker needed seek out a living representative of God, and to cultivate a relationship with that person, and to submissively enquire and to gain spiritual guidance as to how progress on this path of spiritual life.
So there’s one really famous and beautiful verse in the Bhagavad-Gita, in the 4th chapter the 34th verse. It says:
Just try to learn the truth by approaching a spiritual master. Inquire from him submissively and render service unto him. The self-realized soul can impart knowledge unto you because he has seen the truth.Bhagavad-gita 4:34
So we are admonished by the Bhagavad-gita to seek out such a spiritual personality.
Something that is greatly lacking in the more Western traditions is—a couple of things. One is training people, particularly from a young age, to question, to not just blindly accept, but to question. And this is an important part of one’s spiritual development - to actually learn how to question. The mood of questioning is also important. If one is asking questions in a very challenging way it means, often, that they think they know what is the truth and they want to see if that person actually lives up to their personal standard. So in their asking question they’re already passing judgment, whereas one is encouraged to understand and accept that if I am not in actual knowledge of God, and of the soul, and of the nature of this world, then I do need to question, but I need to be a little submissive here.
Submissive means approaching a spiritual teacher, and initially the questioning is also about trying to come understand whether this person is actually a bona fide representative of God or not. It’s very easy for someone to say, “Oh I’m a spiritual teacher. I know all these things.” And the questioning process helps make it so that we can come to understand whether someone is genuinely a bona fide representative of God or not. Now in the system of Guru Parampara, what we described as Guru Parampara, the understanding is that all spiritual truth originates with the Supreme, with God. And this knowledge is handed down in an unbroken line of spiritual teachers.
And the example is given that, like you’ll see it in India and some of the countries in Southeast Asia, with these really old and huge mango trees, when you have ripening fruit and they cannot be easily reached and they can be easily damaged. The more ripened a fruit is on the tree the more value it has. And so there was a harvesting system where three or four or five people would climb a tree and one person would be at the top or on the outer parts of the tree harvesting the mango, and then they would pass it down to a person who would take it and pass it to the next person and it would reach the ground safely. And its value would be premium because it’s intact and in wonderful condition. And this is like the system of Guru Parampara where the truth is handed down from one teacher to a disciple, who in turn becomes a teacher and hands that same fruit to their own disciples.
And this also, this example also denotes a particular spiritual process. Actually all attempts to acquire spiritual understanding, spiritual realization can be executed in one of two ways. One is called the ascending process. The other one is known as the descending process or the process of revelation.
In the ascending process it’s kind of like when a person wants to scale Mt Everest and they’ve got a team of guys that are trained in rock and ice climbing. They are physically fit. They’ve conditioned themself. They have the right equipment together. They have the right altitude training. They have made all of the necessary preparations for everything that they need. They move all this equipment and themselves to a base camp. Once it’s all there and they’re settled, they sleep. Then they rise early in the morning and begin now moving this gear bit by bit up to the next highest camp, then up to the next highest camp and it’s done in stages. And they call the final stage, where they’re going to climb to the peak, they call this an “assault on the peak.” (laughs) I mean just think about it. That’s also equated with military tactics like attacking somebody, right? You’re launching an assault on the peak.
So in this system it is very much dependent upon an individual’s strength and their own talent and capabilities and training. So there are many yoga systems where this is the prevalent approach to trying to come to realization and to know what is the truth.
The descending process is quite opposite. It is an utter recognition of my own unworthiness, my own lack of ability, the fact that I am ignorant, I do not possess the highest truth. And if it is delivered to me, in the same way that the mango is picked and passed down the tree, if somebody hands it to me I can receive it.
Or the example is given like the rising of the sun: as the sun approaches the horizon there’s dim light in the sky, then eventually the light is stronger, and eventually there is full light, I can see everything around me and the sun itself reveals itself. So the process of actual Guru Parampara is part of this, what’s known as a descending process. And in this descending process, the thing that is more relevant than your personal qualification, how pious, how holy you are, how together you are, how intelligent you are, what is more relevant is your actual receptiveness, your humility and your openness to receive the gift of spiritual knowledge.
In the Bhagavad-gita also in the 4th chapter the 3rd verse, after speaking about this system of Guru Paramapara Krishna states that,
That very ancient science of the relationship with the Supreme is today told by Me to you because [now we know the reason!] because you are My devotee as well as My friend; therefore you can understand the transcendental mystery of this science.Bhagavad-gita 4:3
So here, I mean this is actually quite an amazing revelation, that you need to be in an appropriate state or condition, which is one of friendliness towards the Supreme Soul, in order to be able to– friendliness meaning non-enviousness, or non-competitiveness. You’ll see in this world that there is a common characteristic that almost all people have and it is their desire to be number one. Somebody wins, you know, in an Olympic race or a basketball game or a rugby match, or whatever, anything, and everybody’s pumping their hand in the sky with the big single digit, number one. “We are number 1.”
I’m sorry, you’re not number 1! You may have excelled amongst your, I don’t know, your co-sportsmen or whatever, and you may have excelled amongst them. It doesn’t make you number 1. It makes you tiny little number one within a particular group and in a particular field. And let’s see how you’re doing in about 50 years. You know, the young spunky punk, who’s so incredibly fit and just testosterone pumping, just racing across the line or whatever, doing some Herculean feat, “I’m number one.” Okay let’s check you out in 50 years and see how you’re doing. You know it’s kind of becomes a little bit embarrassing to see a 75-year-old boxer trying to boop boop boop: [mimes shadow boxing] you know. Somebody says “Hey champ,” and he goes boomp boomp boomp boomp boomp [mimes shadow boxing]. Yeah it’s like okay, everybody wants to kind of go along with his little moment of glory but it’s—they actually feeling a little bit embarrassed for the guy, because he’s completely lost it.
So this competitive spirit, this desire to be at the center of things, to be the center of attention, whether it’s to be the most beautiful or handsome, to be the most intelligent, to be the funniest. People who don’t have the best body types in terms of people’s perception of what’s attractive often succeed in other ways. They’re just so cute or loveable or friendly or they just tell really good jokes or they’ve got good taste in something, you know. Everybody, just in different ways, they try to occupy this space. And this space is actually not ours to try and occupy, and we can never occupy this space. This is the space of the Supreme Soul.
So the reception of spiritual knowledge, and your ability to actually be able to embrace this realization, and to have profound realization and understanding, is very much dependent and tied to your state of consciousness, your condition of great humility and submissiveness towards the Supreme Soul. So the person, as we’ve heard here, one, we’re encouraged to seek out and to receive transcendental knowledge from a spiritual teacher or authority. The Sanskrit word to describe this is guru.
Now the word guru in Sanskrit is used in different ways. It can even refer in a very mundane way to a teacher. Someone that’s teaching me how to fix a motorbike, he could be my motorbike guru, but that doesn’t mean—even if that word is used that way—it should be equated with the actual spiritual meaning of the word guru. Unlike in the ecclesiastical system, a guru is never appointed. An actual guru is never appointed. Why? Because you cannot appoint—you can appoint someone to a position but you cannot appoint them to certain state of consciousness.
If we really understand the spiritual import of the word guru then we understand we are speaking of someone who is actually a topmost and pure lover of God. This is a state of consciousness. It is a state of complete surrender. It is a condition of intimate relationship and submissiveness to the Supreme. When a person is in this state of being an actual lover of God they are automatically empowered to share what it is that they have received.
So when we look at this system we will see this is really hugely different than conventional religion where you’re just a part of a congregation and you show up. What we’re talking about here is developing an individual and personal relationship with an actual authorised, empowered and bona fide spiritual teacher and it is your obligation as a seeker to use your intelligence, and to take the guidance of the Lord within your own heart - this is known as Lord Paramatma, the Supreme Atma or the Supreme Self - to guide us.
You will see that in this system of Guru Parampara any actual potent spiritual teacher or guru first was a perfect disciple. They themselves had a bona fide and potent spiritual master whom they approached in this mood of submissiveness. They apprenticed, if I can use that word, although that’s actually not really a good way to describe it. They studied under the guidance, the tutelage of their spiritual master. And it’s not like you just learn things. It has to do with how you are living your life, your purpose for existence, your purpose for doing things.
Two people can approach a bona fide spiritual teacher, one of them with the idea of, “What can I take from this person? And what do I need to do in order to, myself, become a guru? Because if I’m a guru, my God that’s gonna be fun. (laughs) I’ll be in a position of power or influence over others.” Anybody that approaches with this mentality will never actually be guru because they will not come to the actual platform of pure love for God or the Supreme.
So in order to come the platform of being a lover of God and living as a guru, which is a state of consciousness, one must first become a bona fide and pure disciple. So this is one characteristic.
Unfortunately we see even within the yoga scene and in India and everything, there’s just like so many people that want to be your guru, like so badly. Everybody wants to teach you about things and control your life and run you around, and that has nothing to do with being a guru. So because of that situation, because we have people that are always looking for something cheap - I don’t want to pay the price, I don’t want to have to undergo the personal transformation - so I become really inclined towards someone who is actually a cheater. I allow myself to be cheated because I want to settle for something that is not authentic, that is not real, that is not a genuine spiritual experience.
So as we mentioned earlier in the first verse that we read, that there were two components or two parts to this undertaking to become a student or disciple of a bona fide spiritual master. These two components are of course, submissive enquiry, and the rendering of some service to your spiritual master. This system is meant to accelerate your spiritual growth and your coming to the platform of actual God-realisation.
The submissive enquiry is done in the beginning to try and ascertain whether this person that is teaching or is going to be teaching or proposing or whatever, that this person is actually a representative of God. Part of our problem in the Western world is that we have not had training how to question; but scripture or shastra, the Vedic scriptures, or the yogic scriptures, are filled with directions and there are always three things that you are going to check. It is called guru, sadhu, shastra.
Guru, sadhu, shastra means that what comes from the mouth of guru must be perfectly in line with what is stated in scripture. If it is not, such a guru needs to be respectfully rejected. The sadhu is the saintly teachers from the past, the previous, what are called acharyas. When a guru speaks or teaches, his pronouncements, his teaching, must be perfectly in line with the previous spiritual authorities and with what is in shastra. That is required. If these things are not lined up, if somebody has produced a book and the statements in there are not in line with the teaching of a bona fide guru and the previous authorities and other scripture, that is to be rejected.
So there is a great burden placed on the individual to use their intelligence and to seek in an appropriate manner. If you do not do this, then you may be subject to being cheated.
Another important component, really important, is the fact that within the heart of all living beings sits the Supreme Lord, our dearest of friends. And if I go deep within my heart and I ask this question, “Can I trust this person as Your actual representative? Can I trust them?” we will have some inkling, some understanding, that one needs to be cautious of someone, or we perhaps need to reject this person, or that we can fully embrace them.
So these are the safeguards that help a person to—in their quest to find such a bona fide spiritual teacher. And having found such a teacher one must approach in a mood of humility. Still enquiry is there but is enquiry from the point of view that, “I don’t know this. Can you please tell me?” Then of course I must take it away and now I contemplate and consider it in light of what else exists in scripture, what other spiritual authorities have given. Does this all harmonise? Does this all match up?
And I should approach not only in humility but in an attitude of service because this need, need, to engage in an activity that is utterly purifying is centered around two things: one is this chanting of sacred mantras, this transcendental sound, this kirtan that we are engaged in, but then the rendering of service to a representative of God and to God Himself is utterly transforming, and it—what it does is begin to awaken our real spiritual nature so that we can live a life that is completely in harmony with who we actually are.
So getting back to this topic, some people might have gone like, “Wow! This is kind of a little bit heavy this—I was thinking that, you know, being spiritual but not religious was kind of like simple thing.” No. It’s actually quite profound. It is a good approach but one needs to approach it with real spiritual understanding. The very core of this idea of being spiritual but not religious lies in the understanding that this body, this body that I possess is not me. It is simply a vehicle that I am using.
A person, for instance, can be completely religious, very, very pious but yet be completely immersed, fully embracing the idea that, “This body is me, and that body is you. The body that you have on is who you actually are.” In such a condition a person cannot live a truly deeply spiritual life. They may be very pious, as I said, and this is all good and is helpful. It makes the word a better place. It is helpful for individuals. But unless a person comes to this fundamental understanding it becomes impossible to genuinely spiritually advance and it opens the doorway—I mean so many terrible things have been done in the name of religion and if you actually examine them and look at them they are all intimately tied to this materialistic idea that I am material, I am this body, and somebody that is from a different ethnic extraction or a different country or a different religion is someone to be hated and despised. I cannot see that all living beings are truly children of God.
So going back to the Bhagavad-gita, it’s actually very interesting because in relation to this idea of religiosity, in the very beginning of Bhagavad-gita there is a warrior prince. His name is Arjuna. He is a very powerful warrior but— He is an amazing personality and he is leading, actually, a substantially wonderful spiritual life. And he has come to this point where he is about to partake in a battle, and he asks that he be taken down to the battlefield and go down the line of battle and look at his enemies that he was going to fight. And in seeing their faces and seeing how many of them were related to him he suddenly became overwhelmed, and he considered that what he was about to do was incredibly sinful. And so, being confused and worried, he now was thinking of now retiring from the battlefield, not engaging in this fight because it was very irreligious. It was contrary to religious principle. He proposed that this idea of killing family members and everything in battle was very anti-dharma.
So many people are familiar with this word, they’ve heard this word dharma. Dharma actually has many meanings. The most common convention is to use it to mean virtue, or morality or religion or religious work, but it also has a higher meaning. The highest meaning of dharma is the intrinsic nature of something. And the way in which this term is used, in relation to a real spiritual pursuit, this is called sanatana-dharma. Sanatana dharma means the eternal nature of the soul itself, of the living being. What is your—the eternal nature of all living beings, to live a life where we are living out this, our inner most eternal spiritual nature. This is called sanatana-dharma and it is different from just going through life observing religious ritual and ceremony and observance and morality and virtue and these things.
So Arjuna had protested in the beginning of Bhagavad-gita, “I ain’t doing this.” He said his mind was reeling. He was actually crying. He was shaking. He could not hold his bow in his hand anymore. It was slipping from his hand, and he was like fainting. He sat down on the edge of his chariot. He couldn’t even stand. He was in such a state of confusion, and protested that what he was about to do was anti-dharma.
So Krishna, in one of His concluding statements to Arjuna, after giving him a very amazing understanding of spiritual life, what spiritual life actually means, He states this verse that begins with the words, sarva-dharman parityajya. This term sarva means like “all,” like in a very vast way. Sarva dharma: all forms of dharma, meaning the idea of religiousness, the idea of righteousness, the idea of virtue and morality, all these ideas of dharma need to be given up. And Krishna says, Abandon—
Abandon all varieties of religion and just surrender unto Me [the Supreme Soul] I shall deliver you from all sinful reaction. Do not fear.Bhagavad-gita 18:66
So the Bhagavad-gita actually teaches this idea that we’re—this talk is about, the idea of being spiritual and not religious and it teaches in the most profound and wonderful way.
So we learn from the Bhagavad-gita that true spirituality means that I have founded my life, my life, on this understanding that I am spirit, I am a spiritual being. Materialism is founded on the idea that I am this body, or I am material.
Another principle is then that a person begins to understand and execute or live out this understanding of living in harmony with others and this world. And that is enacted on the understanding that this world is not my home. I cannot lay claim to this place, nor should I think I can find shelter here. I am a transient, moving through this life and this world, that this world is not my shelter. It is not my shelter. I must seek what is my true shelter in another place. That shelter is this Supreme Soul.
Another aspect of my true spiritual identity and what it means to live a spiritual life is the cultivation of spiritual love and to express that through loving service, loving service towards the Supreme Soul and loving service to all of His children, my brothers and sisters, all living beings within this world.
So living with this foundational understanding or realization means that I am actually living an enlightened life. If I am not living this way my life is not enlightened. If I live this way I am living a life of knowledge. If I am not living this way then I am living a life of ignorance. And ignorance—there’s a little formula: Ignorance = pain, or suffering. The degree to which I am in ignorance, it will manifest as pain and suffering in my life. When one has come to true spiritual enlightenment then they are relieved of pain and suffering. Even tribulation that may exist does not alter, it doesn’t affect, it doesn’t change the course of a truly spiritual person.
So with that I would like to thank you very much for joining us today, and we will conclude with some more kirtan meditation. So please do join with us. Thank you very much.
Thank you very much for joining us and I’d like to invite you to join us next week for the conclusion in this series on the Bhagavad-gita. Thank you. Namaste.