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Polarity and Discrimination


As a lamp in a windless spot does not flicker, so is the man of subdued thought who practises union in the Self.


 It is intrinsic to the complex nature of man that though he necessarily participates in the ever-present polarity of the three qualities (gunas), he is always capable of mirroring spaceless wisdom in the theatre of time. According to the ancient teachings of the sages, man is essentially aloof from all the modifications of his mind. Man is more than the medley of bodily movements, more than the sum-total of his desires, and stronger than the torrent of thoughts that rush forth in a frenzied procession before his inward eye. Man is vaster than his variegated states of consciousness. Every person is beyond all possible modes of manifestation, for at the root there is an inmost core of consciousness wherein one is free from the familiar pairs of opposites. There is hardly a human being who does not savour golden moments of release and reconciliation, a deep feeling of joyous freedom, a firm sense of the falling away of fetters. There is not a person who does not experience, while tossed between the polarities of inertia and impetuosity, intervals of rhythmic, harmonious movement. Every person, in principle, is conscious of boundless space, ceaseless motion and eternal duration. These transcend the clumsy categories into which human life is conventionally divided. Man has the potential power of going beyond yesterday, today and tomorrow, here, there and everywhere. It is this central truth, as Krishna suggests in the Bhagavad Gita, that makes man capable of union with the Universal Self. Each can become a true man of meditation, with an inalienable freedom from captivity to the gunas as well as a creative participation in the three qualities – in illumination, in the desires and passions of the world, and in the enveloping fog of obscuration, darkness and ignorance. At all times, the immortal soul is uninvolved.

 In Buddhist literature the elephant symbolized the magnanimous potentials of human nature. The impersonal majesty, gentle friendliness and steady reliability of elephants are familiar to all, and there is scarcely anyone who cannot appreciate the story of the six blind men and the elephant. One of them clasped the tail and concluded that the elephant was a rope; another held the trunk and decided that the elephant was a huge serpent; the blind man who grasped a leg thought the elephant was like a tree; stroking the ear, another surmised the elephant to be a fan; touching the elephant's side, the fifth man took the elephant to be a wall; and finally, seizing a tusk, the sixth man feared the elephant was a spear. So they all came to conflicting views. A seventh person, standing apart and clearly seeing that there are six paradigmatic standpoints corresponding to north, south, east, west, above and below, could cherish a synthesizing insight. All six perspectives are partially true, but none of them expresses the whole truth. The Buddha often spoke of the elephant as signifying the Bodhisattva, with his wisdom and compassion. The Bodhisattva, like the elephant, is incapable of forgetting anything which is relevant to what he needs to know. At the same time, he is suffused by supreme detachment. The Bodhisattva's eyes, like those of the elephant, are gentle and full of tenderness, gladdening all around. The Bodhisattva teaches what it is to be truly human, to be abundantly affectionate, to love generously. Just as little children can approach elephants with no fear of being hurt, so too may all men and women approach the Bodhisattvas.

 The elephant displays a marvellous blending of the three qualities. The elephant is tamasic; no one who sees a quiet pachyderm weighing four tons is likely to regard the animal as restless. There is a tremendous stability to the elephant. At the same time, though it is tamasic, it relishes harmless pleasures, as every child knows who has had the satisfaction of offering bananas to an elephant. Yet the elephant is proverbially patient and long-suffering, with a majestic indifference to the curiosity of passers-by. In this way the elephant indicates the enormous potential strength of soul, mind and character in every human being. Furthermore, the elephant shows the most harmonious movements, swishing its tail or swaying its trunk. When it raises its trunk, it salutes the boundless sky, its tusks ever pointing upwards. To take an elephant's-eye view of the world is to appreciate the immensity of what is above by saluting the vastness of the sky while at the same time standing very firmly on the ground. When in motion the elephant is an enchanting sight. Bartok, commenting on a delightful passage in one of Beethoven's symphonies, said that it was like the stately yet playful movement of elephants dancing. Such music employs the bass notes of heavy instruments and at the same time conveys to intuitive listeners a quality reminiscent of those haunting times in history when great events converged. Elephants are symbolic reminders of the momentous changes that are gestating today on the globe, seminal movements which are the unacknowledged reflections of the sacrificial ideation of Bodhisattvas. Remaining rooted in immovable contemplation upon the spaceless, the soundless, the boundless, they are also motionless in mind and in will, yet rhythmic and deliberate in thought and creation. They participate in the vicissitudes of historical cycles sufficiently to understand human beings who are still captive to the bonds of matter, but at the same time they remain in a seeming state of non-activity because they have no incentive or motivation to act for the sake of results. They simply do not live for the fruits of action, and are beyond praise and blame, while effortlessly exemplifying the Religion of Responsibility.

 The Bhagavad Gita intimates that perfectibility is a meaningful ideal because it is rooted in the very ground of one's being. In effect, Krishna's teaching is echoed in the injunction of Christ: "Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in Heaven is perfect." If every human being can summon an active faith in the possibility of perfection, then each can vitally participate in the vicissitudes of space and time, the perplexing imperfections of this world. If one can avoid consolidating through guilt-ridden tamasic obsession or precipitating through the intensely rajasic and disordered buzzing of the brain, or seeking self-satisfaction through a static, sattvic equilibrium, then one may become an apprentice in the art of alchemical self-transmutation. One could repeatedly rise above the three qualities and thereby recognize in this great teaching an assured basis for the principle of indefinite growth in the context of cool detachment and joyous renunciation. So long as the three qualities are not merely properties of matter and mind but also grounded in the very nature of differentiated reality, human beings can self-consciously seek the One in the many and then discern the many in the One. Eventually a point is reached when it is possible simultaneously to see the One in the many and the many in the One. The Bhagavad Gita blends three types of knowledge with the three gunas. In the fourteenth and seventeenth chapters the three qualities are differentiated at many levels, including faith, charity, action, knowledge, the discriminative faculty of Buddhi, the power of steadfastness and the potency of meditation.

 In regard to discrimination of duty Krishna offers a dialectical teaching that can accommodate a variety of situations owing to its central logic. Quintessentially, it is a philosophy in which there is no intrinsic separation of the knower from the known. Anyone with a strictly conventional view of his obligations is apt to be attached to results. He becomes so conditioned and conditional that he can attempt something solely in the hope of reward. This is magnified unmistakably in an effete commercial culture where one never initiates anything unless it can be weighed and measured, bought and sold. Today many people are waking up to the absurdity of the logic of the cash register when applied to human encounters. Those who perform duties in a rajasic sense have no real discrimination. They are ever agitated by the desire for results, and, therefore, can only discharge their duties by setting false values upon them. They have somehow to set apart certain acts and duties from all others. Not only are they inflexible, but they are also preoccupied with the language of comparison and contrast. They soon start comparing and contrasting, whether in self-awareness or meditation, in drug-taking or erotic activity, in stocks and shares or success measured in terms of dollars and cents. As they are constantly involved in making comparisons which are misleading, they cling to a derivative and parasitic conception of duty. They cannot generate the supreme, serene sense of obligation of the truly free man who voluntarily binds himself by a fundamental commitment and chooses to honour it through every trial.

 Alternatively, consider the person who decides to remain true to a sacred teaching and to a fundamental negation of false values. Here one may sense the strength of clear-sightedness brought over from previous lives in order to carry out a line of inward resolve. Such souls show the power of calm discrimination between essentials and non-essentials. The more tough-minded a person remains in preserving a pattern of self-chosen obligations – or as Krishna says, in doing only what is necessary – the more he is always, in every situation, ready to negate the superfluous while concentrating on what is needed. This produces a level of discriminative wisdom which is rather like the use and enjoyment of light. Some mystical poets compare this to the light that radiates from a red-hot piece of glowing coal. Tamas would be the same coal when it is inert. When a fire is put out, there is a death of rajasic radiance and there results a stone-like state concealing an inner process of disintegration. Discriminative wisdom exists at many levels. Herein lies the great strength and generous hope of the teaching of the Bhagavad Gita. Every rivulet of discrimination enhances the active power of Buddhi. Even if one merely has a few drops of the waters of devotion and humbly consecrates them at the inmost altar of Krishna, it is possible to negate in advance any attachment to consequences. Engaging in action in a sacrificial spirit, with pure joy and the willing acceptance of pain, the true devotee will certainly be delivered from a network of errors and miseries. In the progress of time he will surely experience tranquillity of thought. "Dharma" in Sanskrit has a very different connotation from any strenuous conceptions of duty, Calvinistic or Teutonic. There is instead a firm yet relaxed sense of obligation which is self-sustaining and also spontaneous. In the Bhagavad Gita dharma is ascribed to fire, the sky, all objects in space, all phenomena in time, and the categories of selfhood. Dharma is that which bolds: anything which holds up a human being, anything which sustains him, anything which helps him to keep going – is rooted in his duty. If dharma upholds every person, anyone can regulate and refine dharma through Buddhic discrimination. This is the sovereign talisman of every human being.

 All persons inherently possess godlike faculties of imagination, creativity, freedom and serenity. All are capable of exalted conceptions of calm, and can expand their perspectives and horizons while at the same time bringing a godlike faculty of intense concentration to every task. The great Teachers of mankind have always reminded all of the privilege of incarnation into a human form. Many people, however, are liable to be so rajasic at the moment of death that they will soon be propelled back into incarnation in circumstances they do not like. There are also those who are so receptive in life to the summerland of ghosts, demons and disintegrating entities, pisachas and rakshasas, that at the moment of death they are drawn into the underworld of psychic corpses. Human beings are innately divine, but there are myriad degrees of differentiation in the manifestation of divine light. The light shines in all, but in all it does not shine equally. By using whatever in consciousness is an authentic mirroring of supernal light in the concrete contexts of daily obligations, one's own light will grow. The rays of truth can fall upon those who ardently desire to rescue the mind from the darkness of ignorance. It is critical for human beings to keep relighting themselves, to wipe out the ignorance that consolidates out of inertia and delusion in that pseudo-entity absolutized as the personal self. In the eyes of the sages there are only rays of light accompanied by long shadows masquerading as personalities.

 Krishna speaks in the sixteenth chapter of those who are born with demonic qualities, and provides a perfect portrait of the contemporary dying culture in Kali Yuga. He also offers a compelling picture of the graces and excellences of those who evoke memories of the Golden Age. The demonic qualities, resulting in spiritual inertia, are the product of misuse in previous lives. Everyone who abused any power must face the consequences in the future. For three or four lives he may find his will blunted, his faculties castrated, his potencies circumcised, until he can thoroughly learn the proper use of his powers. There is a compelling passage in The Dream of Ravan wherein we are given a graphic analogy between states of mind and diseases. Theosophically, all ailments are caused in the realm of the mind; all ailments are rooted in the subtler vestures. Sattva corresponds to the karana sarira, the causal body, comprising the most fundamental ideas of selfhood in relation to which one generates a sense of reality. There is a correspondence between rajas, the principle of chaotic desire, and the sukshma sarira, the astral form. When this is irradiated by the Light of the Logos, it can show a reflected radiance. In all human beings there are glimmerings of noble aspiration, the yearning to do good. This is the source of fellow-feeling, the kindness of a mother for her children, the solicitude of a doctor for a pregnant woman whose baby he is delivering. These are mere intimations of that sattvic quality which can make a human being magnanimous, noble and free.

 The astral body is lunar and is affected by the phases of the moon. It is vulnerable to pollution, especially through self-hatred, perverse ambition and self-dramatization. This is accompanied by the ever-thickening anxiety which deep down in the soul represents the fear that one may not return in a human form. With the disconnection between what the soul knows in sleep and what the mind fears in waking life, there is an acute sense of being unworthy of the rich resources of life. This enormous sense of inadequacy is coupled with the terror of loneliness, aggravated by the inability to share the joys and sorrows of others. It is pathetic to be preoccupied with success and failure. There is nothing more tedious than continuously adding up the figures in one's own account. When such a person gives himself a rest, he mistakes chaotic images in the brain for thinking, or the mechanical borrowing of sounds and gestures for sacred mantrams. Mantrams must be intoned with tremendous deliberation. When persons find that they are like leaky jars and at the same time suffer a painful inner congestion, they must recognize that there is no release except through fundamental measures. There is no protection for the lazy and the weak, nor for those who indulge in self-pity but who are perversely strong-willed. These spiritual and moral cowards, drawing on frustration and hatred from previous lives, would either like to rearrange everything instantly, or steal their way, with drugs or incantations, into the magic casements of mystical states of consciousness. Many, through memories from previous lives, would like to think that simply by holding a book they will be saved. Any possibility of redemption, however, depends upon the degree and continuity of their genuine concern for other human beings.

 There is an enigmatic story in The Bhagavatam about a man who became wicked. He had several children, named after gods and goddesses, and at the moment of death he happened to cry out the name of his son Narayana. Because he uttered this divine name in a mood of resignation when the god of Death came, he suddenly began to see the light. The god of Death took counsel with the attendants of Vishnu, who asked, "Can you take him away when he has uttered this sacred sound?" Then they told this man that he could have another lease on life, but they warned him that henceforth no accidental sounding of the divine name would protect him. From now onwards he must deliberately and daily intone it. The gods knew that in his sounding of the name there was a residual sincerity reaching out to Lord Narayana, and that if he got another chance, he would deeply repent and generate constancy of devotion. There are few experiences that are so chastening as a narrow escape from death. Unfortunately, many people have not used their time to think through their fundamental view of life, but it is always possible to reflect that there are other human beings on earth, that the world is a wonderful place, that one's life is not one's own to throw away. One is indebted to one's parents and teachers for myriad opportunities to learn, and just because one fails to reflect calmly upon the good in oneself does not mean that one cannot grasp such opportunities or that one must continually brood on limitations. To do so is demonic. There are large numbers of people with abundant energies and considerable powers, but unable to use them effectively because of past misuse, owing to excessive meditation upon themselves and of extreme callousness in regard to means and ends. They have played the ancient game of gaining confidence at the expense of others, but for such there is no cosmic protection. He who seeks to gain at the expense of another is lost in life after life. But he who seeks to grow in the service and the loving acceptance of all others, can always reflect upon the good in all human beings, and thereby release the good in himself.

 Demonic inertia arises through a whole way of thinking that is false. If one thinks that this world exists for enjoyment only, that human beings are merely the ephemeral accidental product of the pleasure of a man and a woman, that everyone is in competition for wealth and fame and status, and if one ceaselessly caters to all such absurdities and stupidities, one develops an asuric nature. Anyone who really wants to rise above this condition could do no better than to ponder upon the seventeenth chapter of the Bhagavad Gita, the philosophical nature of the three qualities, and the sixteenth chapter, which gives the portraits of the demonic personality as well as the godlike being. A sensible person who wishes to travel on the road to true discipleship, will find that simply by studying these chapters calmly he could see clearly the convergence of attitudes and qualities that strengthens the demonic or godlike nature in man. Instead of indulging in self-pity and self-contempt, the sincere seeker of wisdom will allow his whole nature to become absorbed in contemplation on the godlike qualities. The whole of the Bhagavad Gita is replete with magnificent portraits of sages. The magic of meditation is such that by merely focussing upon them, they can release a light-energy which streams downward, freeing a person from the bondage of self-created illusions and self-destructive acts. Rid of the specious notion that he is somebody special, he can freely accept his cosmic potential as a point in space and joyously deliver himself with the dignity of man qua man. It is only when he is ready that Krishna confers upon Arjuna the exalted title of Nara (man), an individual ray of Divine Light. When a person can truly witness the divine in every human being, he can also see that every time anyone torments himself, he tortures Krishna. No one has such a right. One's parents did not give a body simply for the sake of crucifying the Christos-Krishna within. One has to free oneself from all obsessive identification with the shadow and salute the empyrean with the cool assurance of one who does not fear the light or is not threatened by the fact that other human beings exist, and whose stance is firmly rooted in the Divine Ground that transcends the gunas and the playful polarities of Purusha and Prakriti.

Hermes, July 1978
by Raghavan Iyer

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