April 3, 2017: Reading the Bhagavad Gita in the Age of Trump

Setting sun on the daffodils.francoise_gilot

As I marvel at the scandals, ethics violations, incompetence and subterfuge dominating the first 100 days of the Trump presidency, I keep thinking of the stories of the Mahabharata that form the backdrop of the Bhagavad Gita. There we have a horrendous war between two dynasties with a tangled web of betrayals. Betrayals that include really bad treatment of women, cheating, jealousy, revenge, and backroom deals. By the end of the war, both sides have been decimated. Sound familiar. I could be writing about our current political landscape.

And in the midst of the Mahabharata, right there on the battlefield of a war to end all wars, comes the Bhagavad Gita. It’s  astonishing really when you think about it. Before the first arrow has been loosed, we’re given a complete exposition of the yogic path, shown step by step how we become truly human.

Coming as it does at this moment in the epic gives even more potency to the possibility inherent in the teaching. That even in the midst of greed-driven madness, we can hold onto ourselves, retain our equanimity, and stand up for dharma. In fact, we must. And to those who distort the meaning of the Gita, seeing it as a handbook for domination and war, I think this single verse sets that record straight:

Though the unwise cling to their actions,
watching for results, the wise
are free of attachments, and act
for the well-being of the whole world. [3.25]

If you ever need a standard for right action, there it is. “The wise are free of attachments and act for the well-being of the whole world.”

Since I’ve been unable to keep this blog current, I’m doubling up audio and poems from the last two February classes. I’ll try to get all of March up in the next week…

FEBRUARY 13, 2017, BHAGAVAD GITA TALK#3: “THE WISE MAN WHOSE INSIGHT IS FIRM, RELINQUISHING THE FRUITS OF ACTION, IS FREED FROM THE BONDAGE OF REBIRTH AND ATTAINS THE PLACE BEYOND SORROW.”

All the verses from the Gita are from Stephen Mitchell’s translation. Here are the Kabir poems I read in this talk:

1.
I don’t know what sort of God we have been
talking about.

The caller calls in a loud voice to the Holy One at
dusk.

Why? Surely the Holy One is not deaf.
He hears the delicate anklets that ring on the feet of an insect as it walks.

Go over and over your beads, paint weird designs on
your forehead,
wear your hair matted, long, and ostentatious,
but when deep inside you there is a loaded gun, how
can you have God.

2.
Friend, please tell me what I can do about this world
I hold to, and keep spinning out!
I gave up sewn clothes, and wore a robe,
but I noticed one day the cloth was well woven.

So I bought some burlap, but I still
throw it elegantly over my left shoulder.

I pulled back my sexual longings,
and now I discover that I’m angry a lot.

I gave up rage, and now I notice
that I am greedy all day.

I worked hard at dissolving the greed,
and now I am proud of myself.

When the mind wants to break its link with the world
it still holds on to one thing.

Kabir says: Listen my friend,
there are very few that find the path!

3.
The spiritual athlete often changes the color of his
clothes,
and his mind remains gray and loveless.

He sits inside a shrine room all day,
so that the Guest has to go outdoors and praise the
rocks.

Or he drills holes in his ears, his hair grows
enormous and matted,
people mistake him for a goat…
He goes out into wilderness areas, strangles his
impulses,
and makes himself neither male nor female…

He shaves his skull, puts his robe in an orange vat,
reads the Bhagavad-Gita, and becomes a terrific
talker.

Kabir says: Actually you are going in a hearse to the
country of death,
bound hand and foot!

 

FEBRUARY 27, 2017, BHAGAVAD GITA TALK #4: THE MIND IS A MASTER AT BURNING US OUT… “WHEN A MAN GIVES UP ALL DESIRES THAT EMERGE FROM THE MIND, AND RESTS CONTENTED IN THE SELF BY THE SELF, HE IS CALLED A MAN OF FIRM WISDOM.”

Alongside the Gita verses, I re-read one of last week’s Kabir poems and one other from his canon and one from Mary Oliver’s House of Light. 

Here’s the Kabir:

I said to the wanting-creature inside me:
What is this river you want to cross?
There are no travelers on the river-road, and no road.
Do you see anyone moving about on that bank, or
resting?
There is no river at all, and no boat, and no boatman.
There is no towrope either, and no one to pull it.
There is no ground, no sky, no time, no bank, no
ford!

And there is no body, and no mind!
Do you believe there is some place that will make the
soul less thirsty?
In that great absence you will find nothing.

Be strong then, and enter into your own body;
there you have a solid place for your feet.
Think about it carefully!
Don’t go off somewhere else!
Kabir says this: just throw away all thoughts of
imaginary things,
and stand firm in that which you are.

And here’s the Mary Oliver:

Five A.M. in the Pinewoods

I’d seen
their hoof prints in the deep
needles and knew
they ended the long night

under the pines, walking
like two mute
and beautiful women toward
the deeper woods, so I

got up in the dark and
went there. They came
slowly down the hill
and looked at me sitting under

the blue trees, shyly
they stepped
closer and stared
from under their thick lashes and even

nibbled some damp
tassels of weeds. This
is not a poem about a dream,
though it could be.

This is a poem about the world
that is ours, or could be.
Finally
one of them — I swear it! —

would have come to my arms.
But the other
stamped sharp hoof in the
pine needles like

the tap of sanity,
and they went off together through
the trees. When I woke
I was alone,

I was thinking:
so this is how you swim inward,
so this is how you flow outward,
so this is how you pray.

 

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