March 18, 2012

Yoga In The Gita: What Do We Do When We Feel Out of Control?

Welcome to our Gita Talk series — “Yoga In The Gita”

Last Sunday, Catherine Ghosh premiered our new series with her introductory article,  Dynamic Participation In Your Daily Life. Based on Krishna’s definitions of yoga in the Gita, the series began by addressing the question of “authority.”


So what does the Gita have to say about living the principles of yoga? What are they, and what effect do they have on us? Catherine phrased it perfectly and succinctly:

Without getting too fancy here, yoga simply connects us with our highest, most dynamic potential.

And that’s what the Gita is about: offering the different stages of the process of yoga and explaining the ultimate attainment, through buddhi-yoga (the use of intelligence) to reach the yoga of love, bhakti. The Gita explains (in Ch. 10) that both buddhi and bhakti are part of the yoga process: the intelligence is engaged to understand and carry out the process of attaining that highest and most dynamic potential that we all hold within us, bhakti.

As Catherine wrote, chapter one — the very beginning — is where Arjuna hits a wall: despondent, disturbed, and in tears, his famed archer’s bow slipping from his hands, he sits down on his chariot, tells Krishna he cannot do what is required of him, and hangs his head.

This, then, is where the first principle of yoga in action begins: what we do and whom we turn to when life twists and turns the way it inevitably does, when we’re vulnerable, when we feel out of control, when we want to learn and need instruction…when we accept that we don’t have the answers. In other words, straight away the Gita throws authority, advice, and guidance at us.

If you’re anything like me, it’s right at this point you want to sit down on your own “chariot” and say, “Look, sorry, but I don’t do authority….”


But actually, we do. All of us. Every day our lives are full of authorized moves and followed instructions — from traffic lights to supermarket queues, from yoga classes to parking lots, from kindness to animals to not littering — all of us follow instructions, accept authority, live according to the rules made by man and God. It’s part of the yoga lifestyle dynamic, not just something we “do” in a yoga studio.

And when it comes to yoga, we are all under authority: whichever form of yoga we’re speaking of. We can “do” hatha yoga (and we need an authority on the subject to teach us), we can “do” ashtanga yoga (again, we need an authority), we can “do” jnana yoga (and you guessed it: we need someone to teach us that, or learn it ourselves from authorized sources).

And bhakti, the yoga of love, is the last step of the yoga process. But does that require authority?

Following authorities is something that has visibly gone out of fashion over the past few decades, most apparently since the ’60s. And as we see those who assume the mantle  of authority stumble and fall around us (and usually in the most inelegant ways), again we question what deems one an “authority” and why we should engage in that cycle.

Yet there’s one question we can ask to help us understand who is a genuine authority, and that is: who is their authority? Who taught them? To whom do they give credit for their knowledge? Because like my mum always says, “There’s nothing new under the sun.” Everything we learn is gleaned from a source, and if we’re genuine, we acknowledge and respect that source.

As Catherine noted last week, we’re both using different translations of the Gita for our articles: I’m using Bhagavad-gita As It Is, translated by Bhaktivedanta Swami. In his purports, he explains this rejection of authority as one of the symptoms of a person who is guided by the lower qualities of life:

They are always arrogant or proud in possessing some type of education or so much wealth. They desire to be worshiped by others, and demand respectability, although they do not command respect. Over trifles they become very angry and speak harshly, not gently. They do not know what should be done and what should not be done. They do everything whimsically, according to their own desire, and they do not recognize any authority.

We can perhaps recognize those symptoms in either ourselves or someone we’ve dealt with in the position of authority, or one who claims to be an authority on something, or who just plain old wants to be.

But do we really need to “learn” from an “authority” how to love? Isn’t love natural, spontaneous, from the heart? The Gita is the ultimate guide to love: not romance, but love!


While the subject of love is addressed further in the Gita, and next week Catherine’s article addresses Love & Perception, still the whole Gita is based on love, it’s goal is love, it’s source is love. Love is the key to the entire text: the simplicity of Krishna’s teachings to Arjuna about authority unfold so beautifully through the greater understanding of their loving relationship. For Arjuna, it was natural to turn to Krishna, easy to listen to him, because they shared a history of loving exchanges through their lifetime of friendship.

So how do we use authority in our lives and determine who is qualified to hear from, to learn from, to take guidance from?

In what might seem a contradictory statement, Bhaktivedanta Swami says,

“Ultimately, we must all fly our own airplane.”

Firstly, that’s a relief: I’m in charge, it’s my choice, which means I’m also responsible for those choices, my actions, the results of those actions, and so on. I love the simplicity of that: I fly my own plane. But then we might ask, if I’m flying my own plane, what, does “authority” actually mean, and what is its purpose, if any?

Being responsible for ourselves and acknowledging the concept that we’re ultimately alone are realizations that can create fear for some. But Bhaktivedanta Swami writes,

One has to get rid of all three stages of attachment to the material world: negligence of spiritual life, fear of a spiritual personal identity, and the conception of void that arises from frustration in life. (Gita 4.10)

The wise Narada Muni taking guidance from Lord Brahma ~ image BBT

We can all suffer from this fear. Catherine wrote last week, “‘But I thought yoga was supposed to make me feel better? Do I really have to go there?’ Yoga asks that we take fearless looks into the places we resist most.”

Sometimes I’ve observed this fear in action, when it becomes the force that drives people to turn away from the prospect of spiritual development; or the opposite end of the extreme, to find a guru, give themselves over to an authority figure, claim that someone is “guiding” them, because they fear their own individuality, fear being responsible for their spiritual decisions, and so they suddenly and cheaply buy into the market of “surrendered service,” of “spirituality,” of “my guru said…,” mindlessly forgoing the individuality that we strive so hard to establish and develop, that is ours alone.

When we see Arjuna sit down on his chariot and say to Krishna, “I can’t do this,” it is a symptom of his frustration, fear, and inability to deal with the acceptance of his own authority; something akin to the fear of one’s own spiritual identity referred to above.

Because with that acceptance and knowledge comes responsibility. And that is hard work.

Like Catherine wrote, that’s when we want to curl up and pull the covers over our head, to withdraw from life. It’s when we want it all to mean “nothing,” and say random, meaningless cliches like “it’s all one,” and then that conception of void arises due to our frustration at not being able to develop individually in our spiritual endeavors. Our own ele-writer Julie Peters referred to this in her recent article on seva and the loss of individuality: just in case anyone was wondering where the idea of that “nothingness” came from, the Gita has already addressed it.

By all means, if you can claim you are free of ego, that your heart is pure, that you have learned absolute control of your mind, senses, anger, lust, greed, pride, envy, or freed yourself of the need for profit, distinction, and adoration

(and all the other conditioned behaviors we each carry to varying degrees), that your desires are pristine and that each one of them (if you can even count them) exists solely for the ultimate and eternal good of every moving and non-moving living entity on this planet, and of the planet Earth herself, then my answer is no, you don’t need to learn anything. In fact, you should be an authority, because you’ve mastered it…

Arjuna asks Krishna ~ image from BBT

But for the rest of the universe? Well, sometimes, whether we like to admit it or not, we need guidance: sometimes a hand to hold, occasionally a little redirection, an instruction on how to do something properly, help in deciphering knowledge in the right way, identifying what is real and what is not, assistance over a bump or two, the answer we are seeking to any question, a real foundation of wisdom, and loving counsel based on truth and substance, not mind and ego.

Just like Arjuna did.

Arjuna was a warrior, a prince, a man of class, intelligence, education; he is described in the Mahabharata as an being extraordinarily handsome — beautiful, even — tall, strong, powerful, elegant, with “the gait of a lion,” wealthy, titled, and accomplished. Yet there he was, overcome, unable to think clearly; he turned to Krishna in tears and asked for help because the decisions he had to make were overwhelming. They effected those he loved, and so he turned to one he loved: Krishna.

Even Krishna — the authority in the Gita, the speaker of wisdom, of dharma, of philosophy and spiritual truths — refers to the sages of the past, extols their abilities to decipher and explain higher knowledge, and therefore recommends their guidance. (Chapter 13.5).

In conclusion, I’d offer two points from the Gita to help us understand authority as the first step in our yoga practice that is, in Catherine’s words, a lifestyle requiring active participation: first, that we lose our conditioned response to the word “authority” (which is mostly negative), and second, that we learn what authority truly is, within ourselves and externally. The Gita is a wealth of loving guidance about how to understand and work with (not lose or negate or destroy) our conditioned behavior, and Krishna’s relationship with Arjuna stands as an ideal example of what good counsel looks, feels, and sounds like.


There’s no quick cures or final words: yoga is a beautiful and elegant lifestyle, and we’re all in the process. As we dive into this journey of spiritual awareness and deeper realization of yoga, each little piece of learning and knowledge slowly begins to build our vision of understanding: of ourselves and everything and everyone around us.

And ultimately, I’d love to think we were all here for each other…

To keep track of all the articles on this series, go to Yoga In The Gita ~ Catherine Ghosh & Braja Sorensen


Read 20 Comments and Reply

Read 20 comments and reply

Top Contributors Latest

Elephant journal  |  Contribution: 1,375,490