In this week’s Bhagavad Gita study group we discussed chapter 7, titled The Yoga of Knowledge and Experience. As we did for chapter 6, we discussed a selection of slokas in chapter 7 including 1-2, 3, 7, 8-9, 14, 16-17, 27-30. The chapter opens with Lord Krishna introducing the concepts of knowledge and experience as they will be discussed in the chapter:
1-2. Devote your whole mind to me and practice yoga. Take me as your only refuge. I will tell you how, by doing this, you can know me in your total reality, without any shadow of doubt. I will give you all this knowledge and direct spiritual experience. When a person has that, nothing else in the world remains to be known.
Swami Tyagananda points out that there is a distinction here between knowledge and experience. Through the study of the Gita, we gain intellectual knowledge. But the real change in our lives comes from spiritual experience, when we truly live according to the teachings of the Gita. And, as quoted above, Krishna says, “when a person has that, nothing else in the world remains to be known.” Any other kind of knowledge (e.g. all of the knowledge we have gained in our courses at Harvard) is necessarily incomplete.
It seems obvious that, if you believe there is truth in the Gita, you would see the value in attaining that which leaves nothing else in the world to be known. But some may still ask, “why do we need knowledge of the ultimate reality when I am living perfectly fine without it?” And we see that most people go through their lives without seeking or even wanting knowledge of the ultimate reality. Knowing this, we may ask, “If I can live a perfectly fine life without learning this knowledge, why should I go through the trouble?” What this knowledge of the ultimate reality will do is that it will remove the sense of unfulfillment in our hearts. If we are honest with ourselves and look closely at the lives of the people that surround us and that have come before us, it is clear that both joy and suffering are inherent aspects of life. Although most people would acknowledge this, it is those who are dissatisfied with this constant up and down who say, “no, there is something wrong here, I do not simply want to accept this life and hope for the best, I want to see if something can be done about it.” It is those who have this hunger who will seek knowledge of the ultimate reality. Whether this inner hunger or even the initial stages of a reflective and questioning life come about depends largely on how much we look at life and reflect upon it.
Swami makes a very important observation: most people are so engrossed in their immediate obligations and planning for the future and worrying about the past that rarely, if at all, do people step back and ask, “What is this life? What does it all mean?” This issue is not only relevant in a spiritual context, but in the secular context as well. A recent book by Yale Law Professor Tony Kronman also points out the decreasing engagement with these important questions. Thus, many busily travel through their lives, at one point busily studying for and stressing about midterms, and then moving on to think about graduate school and jobs, then getting married and having children, then becoming a grandparent, then getting old, and only then, perhaps, will a person look back and think, “What was the meaning of it all?” In sloka 7 of chapter 7, Krishna says:
7. Who cares to seek for that perfect freedom? One person, perhaps, in many thousands. Then tell me how many of those who seek freedom shall know the total truth of my being? Perhaps one only.
Thus, there is no guarantee of freedom for those who seek it, but by seeking, one gives herself the opportunity to make spiritual progress which is carried into the next life.
We also read slokas 16-17 which classify the four kinds of people who turn to religion:
16-17. Among those who are purified by the good deeds, there are four kinds of people who worship me: the relief seeker, the knowledge seeker, the material seeker, and the spiritual seeker. The spiritual seeker is the highest of these. He is continually united with me. He devotes himself to me always, and to no other. For I am very dear to him, and he is dear to me.
The relief seeker is the person who turns to God when there are difficulties and challenges and hopes that God’s help will remove these difficulties. The knowledge seeker is the person who has questions about life and/or the universe and turns to religion for an answer to these questions. The material seeker would like to have things that he is unable to obtain, so he may turn to God to ask for these things. The spiritual seeker is the one who has seen the underlying, unfulfilling nature of the universe and, as discussed above, are searching for a way out of this state of unfulfillment. People in this fourth category are really seeking the Spirit. Swami points out that each of these four types of people are disappointed with something. The first three are disappointed about something in life, while the last is disappointed with life itself. For the first three types of people, God is a means to an end, for the spiritual seeker, he is the end in itself.
These are just a few of the ideas that we discussed during the Gita study group. If you would like to listen to a recording of the study group, mp3 files will be available on dropbox.