When I signed on for the Maui Intensive on the Gita with John Friend and Ram Dass this book was listed on the recommended reading. I had never heard of it before but, being the keener I am, I picked it up on one of my many trips to Banyan Books. I didn’t realize at the time what an influential little book it would become.
First of all I thought it was a study guide to the Gita- how wrong I was! It is a study guide to life– your inner spiritual life- your sadhana. Which when you come full circle, is really what the Gita is : a study guide for life. In Ram Dass’ words, “This really isn’t a book “about” the Bhagavad Gita. It isn’t an analysis of the Gita, or a commentary on the Gita, or anything like that. Rather, it’s a series of reflections about the major themes of the Gita- themes that touch on the various yogas, or paths for coming into union with God, that the Gita investigates. It’s an attempt to look at how those yogas might be relevant to our own lives, in this day and age.” p.1
For those of you who have never had the blessing to meet Ram Dass there is one thing I want to stress about him- his sense of humour. Yes-he is brilliant, articulate, wise and filled with a deep inner light , but he is also so of this world as well. When I first met Ram Dass a few years ago on Maui, I was struck by his ability to teach the deepest wisdom on such a human level. He is like a beautiful, intricate bridge that allows us to walk from this world to the Divine.
Paths to God is based on a course that Ram Dass taught at Naropa Institute ( now Naropa University) in Colorado in 1974. The course was called “The Yogas of the Bhagavad Gita”.Ram Dass’ guru- Neem Karoli Baba (affectionately known as Maharaji) – would only hand out two books to his students: The Ramayana and The Bhagavad Gita. Keeping this in mind, Ram Dass decided to further his own understanding of the Gita by teaching this course. As a teacher myself, I know how teaching can bring greater understanding to even the teacher- sometimes even a different understanding!
Ram Dass sets a context for the teachings by giving an outline of the Gita in his first chapter that he calls: Context and Conflict. He continues with the following chapters:
2. Karma and Incarnation
A discussion on what Karma actually is and our belief ( or non-belief) of incarnation. Ram Dass, being born Jewish and having studied various religions, brings an interesting inter-faith perspective to the idea of incarnation. He quotes parts of the bible that actually show a belief in incarnation in the Judeo-Christian faith. Reincarnation seemed to be common belief at the time of Christ but the Church hotly debated it and as Ram Dass puts it, “they realized that reincarnation wasn’t such a functional philosophy for maintaining the church’s control.”p.38 He goes on to explain differing views of reincarnation and karma from both the Buddhist and Hindu perspectives. This theme plays heavy in the Gita as Krishna urges Arjuna to fight because the body will perish but that which is not the body, I will use the word essence, continues.
2.18 ” The body is mortal, but that which dwells in the body is immortal and immeasurable. Therefore Arjuna, fight in this battle.”- Eknath Easwaran’s translation of the Gita
3. Karma Yoga
Ram Dass gets into a great discussion of dharma and what it means to act. All of our actions- including thought- have an outcome. Even non-action has a result. He brings up a memorable example ” It’s like when you have met someone who has “”Given up smoking!”- and that’s totally who they are. ” who are you?” I am someone who hasn’t smoked for 2 weeks , four hours, and thirty two minutes. ” In their thought forms they are smoking at least a pack an hour!” p.56 He calls it phony holy. Really, can’t you relate to that? For all of us that have gone on a diet, suddenly food becomes an obession! Is that really serving you? When we operate in the place of spirit rather than striving- we are operating in the place of true dharma and no longer creating karma. “When we first set out to do our work as spiritual practice, we’re still acting from inside the world attachments and desires, because the desire to get free is still a desire.But as the upaya, the method, begins to work, it leads us to a deeper understanding of the reason and wisdom that underlie the whole system.” p.72
3.6 ” Those who abstain from action while allowing the mind to swell on sensual pleasure cannot be called sincere spiritual aspirants.”- -E.E.’s translation of the Gita
4. Jnana Yoga
Jnana is the yoga of wisdom or knowledge but Ram Dass explains “whenever we think about our practices or talk about our practices, the thinking and talking are forms of jnana yoga.When I describe to you the practice of karma yoga or the practice of bhakti yoga, the description is a jnana yoga technique. To understand devotional yoga, to understand why we meditate, to understand why we do mantra, we have to develop the kind of discriminating wisdom that can differentiate the real from the unreal, and the path of developing that discrimination is jnana yoga.”p.73 This chapter focuses on techniques to turn the mind in on itself so to speak. Ram Dass explains the levels of mind(ahamkara, manas, buddhi, atman) and how each relates to the sense of who we are and our actions- how they function on a daily basis. He then introduces methods in which the mind becomes the tool which extricates us from the mind and then we see it all as one. “It is all just God dancing with God.”p.93 I love that quote….
4.33 “The offering of wisdom is better than any material offering, Arjuna; for the goal of all work is spiritual wisdom.” -E.E’s translation of the Gita
“But where is the “there” we are trying to get to?”p.94 This chapter focuses on what is known as the formless, the One, Spirit…the list of names is endless in all forms of metaphysics. Ram Dass uses many other texts , including the Tao Te Ching, to show how they explain the immeasurable and indefinable. This is a really deep chapter for we spend pages trying to explain and understand that which in a large part is unexplainable. i think Ram Dass introduces enough anecdotes and thoughts from other spiritualists to create a picture at least from where we can start. Ultimately though, Brahman must be experienced to be understood and so Ram Dass says-“ But “painted cakes do not satisfy hunger,”and finally we have to do the work that allows us to enter the state for ourselves.”p.103
13.17 ” Dwelling in every heart, it is beyond darkness. It is called the light of light, the object and the goal of knowledge,and knowledge itself.”- Eknath Easwaran’s translation of the Gita
6. Sacrifice and Mantra
I call this the weight loss chapter. Ram Dass spends a good part of the chapter showing us how to work with desire and how mindfullness of our desire can become a sacrifice. He uses the one desire most of us have in common: food. Most of us are completely unconscious about the process of eating…or maybe overly obsessive- neither is good. He describes a funny incident at a retreat where Ram Dass had a huge meal prepared for the last day and he would talk about it a lot and everyone would get excited and their desire would build and then when they finally sat down for this beautiful meal together he would give a long, long blessing while the food got cold and then he would read a Buddhist passage on the repulsiveness of food and how it moves through our body- very descriptive, non-enticing stuff. If that wasn’t enough he would then explain how slowly and mindfully they were all going to eat and ” by then the banquet would be ruined.”p.116 He would then explain to the group that we can surrender some of the pleasure of eating and make it more mindful. What Ram Dass is getting at is that anything to which we have a desire attached to can be used to get us to progress further down the path- ” part of our sadhana involves experimenting with each aspect of our lives for its potential as part of our awakening.“p116
His section on mantra I found especially good. I do not know of any other book that has explained mantra practice in such a step by step form and made it seem very approachable for the beginning student. This part of the chapter is something I will use as a teaching and study resource for many years to come. ” That is , what mantra does is to concentrate already-existing stuff in you. It just brings it into focus. It’s like a magnifying glass with the sun: The magnifying glass doesn’t have any heat in and of itself, but it takes the sunlight and focuses it;makes it one pointed. The mantra becomes like that magnifying glass for your consciousness.”.p.121
4.24 “The process of offering is Brahman; that which is offered is Brahman. Brahman offers the sacrifice into the fire of Brahman. Brahman is attained by those who see Brahman in every action”-Eknath Easwaran’s translation of the Gita
7. Renunciation and Purification
I looked at this chapter with fear in my heart as purification and renunciation just don’t seem to go down very well with my dharma. I have tried before people- it wasn’t good. I like to think all I have to remember is that I am Divine- I am part of that greater pulsation already but as Ram Dass kindly reminds us, these acts are ” to get rid of whatever in us prevents us from knowing who we are at this moment…..(they) are designed to get around the roadblock between our knowing and our believing.”p.128. Hmm. I guess he has a point. Ram Dass also says there is a time that is appropriate for these things and I am feeling that more now. I am starting care less and less about what brand name I wear or how much stuff I have. In fact ” stuff” starts to make me feel a little claustrophobic these days. Maybe I am just kidding myself and I am trading Coach bags for yoga books, bamboo cutlery and Lululemon? Phony Holy…
As Ram Dass points out, advertising today is meant to make “us feel more and more dissatisfied, making us think we want more and more things.”p.134 It is so sad and so true. The process cannot be forced, however, and renunciation and purification cannot be done fully because the mind is wanting us to be “good”- that doesn’t really work. Carlos Pomeda once said in a lecture, “renunciates are usually people who are very unhappy with the world”. Can you be a happy renunciate?? I think Ram Dass gives us a chance to explore that idea.
220.127.116.11 “Whatever you do make it an offering to me- the food you eat, the sacrifices you make, the help you give, even your suffering. In this way you will be freed from the bondage of karma and from its results both pleasant and painful.Then, firm in renunciation and yoga, with your heart free, you will come to me.” – Eknath Easwaran’s translation of the Gita
8. Devotion and the Guru
This chapter could easily be retitled the path of love for love is the main theme. Ram Dass, being the devotee of a Guru, gives great insight into what is actually happening in the relationship; how the Guru is just as Ram Dass explains, ” a doorpost” to the real thing. He explained this in Maui during our Gita intensive by saying that devotion cannot be done by intellect. It is done by the heart. A devotee is one whose heart has been opened. He explained that he loved Maharaji and was his devotee but what he really loved was the God within Maharaji. You cannot fall in love with the God in you, your atman, but you can fall in love with the God in someone else. That love over time allows the door to open and then that is when we realize that the object of our love was the “doorpost”- the gateway- but not the subject. “The guru is a being who awakens incredible love in us, and who then uses our love to awaken us out of the illusion of duality”. p.170
He also brings up the discussion around those who think their hearts are closed. I mean, have you been to those yoga gatherings that are the big love fest ( Ok, Maybe it’s an Anusara thing…) and everybody is a bhakti and life is good but then there are those that are NOT that? ( I happen to live with one…) Ram Dass sees those that are feeling nothing- in despair- as having the most potential for heart opening.”It’s only when our despair reaches rock bottom that the opportunity occurs for the heart to open. So if someone says to me, ” I feel nothing; I feel dead inside,”- that, to me, is a critical moment. It’s the moment when there is the possibility of the heart opening. “p.166 This is really what happens to Arjuna in the Gita, he is despondent, he has given up, and now Krishna has an opportunity, through Arjuna’s love of him, to reveal that which is beyond the doorpost so to speak.
1.47 ” Overwhelmed by sorrow, Arjuna spoke these words. And casting away his bow and arrows, he sat down in his chariot in the middle of the battlefield.” Eknath Easwaran’s translation of the Gita
9. Social Aspects of Sadhana
This chapters deal more on the psychology of how we see ourselves; how we differentiate ourselves from others- all of our baggage that comes along when we use our perspective. We need discrimination- that is a given- but can we go the other way around and rather than looking for the differences see the “sameness”. Ram Dass calls this a soul looking at a soul and besides some great stories about his drug trips- he really makes us examine our individuality- or rather our illusion of individuality. He gets into a great discussion of judging and wanting to change people- I mean come on we are all a little bit like that..” I wish he would be more …yadayadayada…” you get the picture. “If we go out into the woods and we look at all the trees, we don’t say, “I wish that oak tree were an elm.” Somehow, we can allow trees to be what they are; we can grant that each tree is perfect just the way it is. But when it comes to people, if everybody isn’t the way we think they ought to be, all hell breaks loose! We sit around judging and judging, having opinions about everybody.”p.200
18.20 “Sattvic knowledge sees the one indestructible Being in all beings, the unity underlying the multiplicity of creation”. -Eknath Easwaran’s translation of the Gita
This chapter is a collection of stories that show Ram Dass’ own evolution on thoughts related to death and dying. Ram Dass’ mother’s death played into his meeting Maharaji, John Friends mother’s death played into his spiritual journey and my own father’s death brought me to yoga. Death can have such a profound sense of rocking us to the core of who we are- or more accurately who we thought we were- and it plays the shell game with what we thought was important. (Under that one? No. Ok- That one! No that either…. ) What happens after death? Where do we go? Why can I still feel so connected? That for me was the key- I knew he was still with me- I could FEEL it- so was that my imagination or was that a realization that we are all part of something that is unchanging?
Reading this chapter, I often thought of my friend and fellow Anusara yogi, Carol Wray. Carol sits with people as they die. During the middle of the night , when family members cannot be present or individuals do not have family, people like Carol make dying a sacred act. She is the first to acknowledge that those who are leaving their body are not always attractive- even ugly- but that after a few moments she sees beyond all that and she is a soul sitting with another soul to help them make a transition. I was hospitalized many years ago and in the middle of the night I could hear the last breaths of an elderly woman a few beds down from me. I had seen her family visit her earlier in the day and I knew that she was loved, but now at 3am in a strange room, she was dying alone. I am not sure what possessed me, as I was supposed to be bed ridden, but I managed to shuffle over to the chair beside her bed and I then plopped myself down beside this seemingly unconscious woman. “Hi- my name is Leanne”, I said, “and you don’t know me, but I figured you wouldn’t want to be alone. I wouldn’t want to be alone.” And there I sat- occasionally wiping her dry mouth with moist q-tips as I had seen her family do and just lightly keeping my hand on hers. I saw in her all those I loved…and I saw me. I wondered if I was doing this for her or if I was doing it for me? I guess it didn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things…… “ For someone on a spiritual path, death is a doorway, an opportunity, and all our practices are done to prepare us for that moment.”p.225
One of the greatest gems is at the end of the book : the course syllabus from Naropa. In detail, it teaches you how to create a sadhana for yourself; how to journal, how to set up a puja, how to start a meditation practice, how to use a japamala and many other things. From the perspective of a teacher of asana, I feel that these practices should not be left outside our realm for “other yogis”. These are practices, that along with the physical asana practice , bring us into alignment with our hearts’ intention- it helps us get free. I know that a real hard core physical yogi can get broken open during kirtan, I know that writing can in a journal ( or a blog!) can give you clarity in your sadhana, and I know that having a place set aside for prayer and contemplation can be a haven and reminder for that which is truly important. These practices are all important if we see our yoga as a path of spirit.
I know that in any future teacher trainings or immersion I do, this book will be mandatory reading. I have wrapped up my own copy, beautifully signed by Ram Dass, in a piece of silk to honor Ram Dass and his teachers. If I can understand and just do even a little of what Ram Dass has put into this book, it will be invaluable on my own path. I hope this book will become part of your path too.
“On this path effort never goes to waste, and there is no failure. Even a little effort toward spiritual awareness will protect you from the greatest fear.”
-(2.40 of The Bhagavad Gita)