This is a classic of Indian literature, and it has a strong association with Yoga and with Yoga
Teacher Training programs, such as ours here at Yogafurie Academy in Bristol. It marks an
evolution in thought: it frames Yoga as a practice of doing the right thing, even if there’s no
personal gain in it – and even if you’ll be in trouble for doing so.
Personally, I found this a difficult concept to start with. Why would anybody work for no
reward? It’s a very alien concept to us, because our society runs on the exchange of money,
and pretty much nobody is in a position to work for free.
To get to the heart of the teaching, it’s useful to recognise that we depend on each other a
lot more than we might think. I could leave my house in the morning, and do amazing things
all day. I might be applauded for the amazing contributions I make. But in truth, I would
have to be honest: someone else built the house I left that morning, someone else grew all
the food I ate, someone else arranged for clean water and all the energy my contributions
took. As for the contributions themselves – for sure, I don’t work alone. What about all the
people that inspire and enable me? Viewed in this way, we get a first glimpse of why and
how Yoga can teach that all are one really. We none of us can really say we stand alone in
our achievements. At a deeper level, we know that human DNA is a version of much older
DNA that can be traced back to the beginning of all life on Earth: we’re not just dependent
on other people, we’re genuinely their brothers and sisters: everything else that lives is
really a distant cousin.
Let’s take another tack on the Bhagavad Gita. People sometimes turn to a higher power
when things go wrong. We might feel motivated to ask a divine power for help in desperate
situations. Wind the clock back a millennium or two, and people would be regularly
conversing with divine powers. Whether it worked or not, it was common place to ask for
help in all sorts of matters. It was common to give an offering in exchange – some kind of
sacrifice. Regarding sacrifice, this is what Wkipedia says:
Borrowed from Old French sacrifice, from Latin sacrificium (“sacrifice”),
from sacrificō (“make or offer a sacrifice”), from sacer (“sacred, holy”) + faciō (“do, make”).
To give up one thing in exchange for another was a way to make life a bit more powerful –
making things a bit more divine. These days, sacrifice is seen as some kind of penance, but it certainly wasn’t like that before. It was more like an attempt to set up a reward. So, the
question arose – what can be offered in sacrifice? Religions had proper lists of what could
be offered and what could not be offered. It’s different now: if we turn to a higher power
when the chips are down and things have turned bad, then we only have our own heartache
Ancient Yogis realised that – for them – the sacrifice wasn’t anything they could acquire
materially. It couldn’t be, because if it was, you couldn’t ask for help unless you’d already
succeeded at something. Even for them, it was when things were going wrong that the help
was actually needed. They knew, as we do, that no one can achieve anything entirely alone
anyway. It’s meaningless for one person to come along and offer material goods, because that person can’t claim it was all down to them anyway. They saw a world in which
fundamental forces of Nature shape and re-shape to world over aeons, and in which death
isn’t real, because every living thing will become something else when it dies. The perceived
an endless and glorious cycle that recycled everything perfectly. There was no way to
predict exactly what this cycle would do next, but all its forms were beautiful and lived in
natural balance if they were left alone. Success and failure as people define it don’t really
exist – they are just more of the same to-ing and fro-ing that Nature just does.
As such, there’s no point offering something that Nature created, because it already belongs
to Nature. The only offering to make is to reflect on how one is feeling, and to bring that to
one’s own attention. This is the offering – not from the person to the divine, but in fact from
the divine to the person! And the only sacrifice is recognising that we are not the sole
authors of our own destiny, and accepting that.
By the time the Gita was written, many Yogis had taken this to heart in a big way. Many had
abandoned families and communities to live alone in contemplation – including the Buddha
of course, who left wife and family. We are told that the family were cared for adequately in
his absence, which is reassuring. However, it puts the Gita into perspective, because the
Gita recognised that this was going on and made the point that people don’t have to
abandon everything. A householder could make the life he or she already had the subject of
their Yoga study, and apply the principles of togetherness and humility in the face of Nature
within existing family and work circles.
What does this mean to us today? Doing the right thing has never been harder, and it’s
never been easier either. The systems in place that degrade the natural world and enforce
disparity of treatment in societies and between societies are all-pervasive. And, the
individual has never had such power to speak out and be heard, and to choose their path.
What I like most about the Gita, however, is the point it makes about eternal life. It
describes how Yoga brings about personal evolution, that propels one to a realm beyond
eternity. And of course, if one does not follow their Yoga, they will simply be born again. In
other words, the gift that seems more precious than anything else – the gift of living forever
– is already ours. How will you choose to receive it? Take it in an easy way now by winning
and holding stuff, and accept lifetime after lifetime of doing that, etc. Or, take it in a more
demanding way now by doing lots of Yoga and Hot Yoga, giving up unimportant likes and
dislikes etc, and it’s a bit smoother in the rest of time. But it’s totally up to you, because all
roads join up eventually.