Assimilation of the
ancient wisdom of the Bhagavad Geeta
with practical lessons from today’s environment provides a novel and
contemporary approach to the process of decision-making, consensus building,
conflict resolution and self-empowerment. My approach will be to show how we can
realize greater fulfillment in our everyday lives by embracing the timeless
principles of self-discipline, pursuit of knowledge and non-attachment.
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The Practice and
philosophy of decision making:
seven step spiritual guide
This book is not about
the Bhagavad Geeta. It is also not about the workplace or home or the self. My
goal was to make the universal philosophy articulated so eloquently in the
Bhagavad Geeta accessible to today’s young adult and to someone like myself –
one not literate in Sanskrit and not particularly spiritual and definitely not
religious. I also wanted to make it applicable and practical to everyday
situations at work or at home. I am fortunate in having spent my childhood years
in India where I routinely heard and read about the values espoused in the Geeta
without knowing the source. Also, though I did not know it at that time, my
father was an embodiment of the principles of the Geeta so as I have grown
older, when life seems too complex and full of conflict, I have a role model.
From my mother, I learned the value of literature and the love of books. This
helped me manage my apprehension about my ability to experience the Bhagavad
Geeta through translations in Hindi and English. Overcoming my limitations in
this area has given me the courage to interpret the Geeta in a more casual and
I wanted to make the
Geeta accessible to those who may not want to experience it because they think
of it as a religious text or too profound and abstract to be practical. I have
tried to keep the translated verses simple. My sources are Geeta translations in
Hindi and English. The books quoted most often are:
The Bhagavad Geeta –
Barbara Stoler Miller
The Concise Light on
Yoga – B.K.S Iyengar.
The numbers in
parentheses refer to chapter and verse in the Geeta.
The Author lives and
works in the San Francisco bay area. At this time this book is a work in
progress and comments are welcome.
The Practice and
philosophy of decision making:
seven step spiritual guide
The Story, Context, Dilemma and the Controversy
Dharma, Yoga, Jnana:
The Three Pillars of Individual Strength
Integrating the Concepts of Dharma, Yoga and Jnana
Practical Do and Don’ts
the Practice and
PHILOSOPHY of decision making
seven step spiritual guide
“The teaching of the Geeta must be regarded
not merely in the light of a general spiritual philosophy or ethical doctrine,
but as bearing upon a practical crisis in the application of ethics and
spirituality to human life”.
– Sri Aurobindo
In eighteen chapters,
seven hundred verses, the Bhagavad Geeta
devotes itself to one task – making one decision. It does so through its
protagonist, the warrior Arjun, and the metaphor of war. It does so by enabling
Arjun to undertake a voyage of self-discovery so he can master the art of making
a complex decision in the face of conflicting values.
In this time of
galloping change and global families, people are seeking new ideals and new
paradigms. In doing so, paradoxically, it can be enlightening to look back at
philosophies that have endured historically, ones that have withstood the test
of time. As traditional definitions of success and power crumble and technology
overtakes our biorhythms, the need for decisive action becomes greater than
ever. Texts like the Bhagavad Geeta
can be a source of knowledge and guidance. This is important because decision
making is about making a choice; about taking charge of our life; about feeling
in control of our own destiny; about self-empowerment.
“The object of studying philosophy is to know one’s own mind, not other
people’s” – commenting on philosophers – William Ralph Inge
A decision is a choice. As soon as you choose to do one thing, it means you are
not doing another. That other may have its own advocates of logic, emotion and
people. This means dealing with conflict. You will need to stand firm in your
choice in the face of opposition from people and circumstance. Having a
philosophy will help you understand yourself and your own motives for making the
choice in the first place. This in turn will provide you the strength and
endurance during this opposition. At the very least, you too will not turn
against yourself and if you choose to do so, you will know why. In addition, the
cycle will start again.
However, thinking about decisions from a perspective of conflict resolution is
going about it the wrong way. Conflict resolution is like happiness; the more
you chase it the less likely you are to get it. Just as you cannot get happiness
by seeking it you cannot resolve a conflict as long as you see it as a conflict
because you will be thinking in terms of winners and losers, us and them. You
will need to enlarge your thoughts to a domain large enough to see the problem
as a solution rather than as a conflict.
In “The Practice and Philosophy of Decision Making”, I describe an action
oriented decision lifecycle, enhanced by philosophical concepts of discipline (yoga) and the pursuit of knowledge (jnana), uniquely integrating the
softer skills of human psychology and philosophy with the traditional hard
skills such as planning and action.
The story, context, dilemma and the
The Bhagavad Geeta is a poem of 700 verses divided into 18 lessons written in
Sanskrit. It is a self contained chapter and an episode in the great epic poem
Mahabharata which is one hundred thousand verses, eight times longer than the
Iliad and Odyssey combined.
Sanskrit is a very compact language and much can be expressed in a few
sentences. Combine that with the subject matter of the poem, and the Geeta has
as many interpretations possible as there are individuals. This is the enduring
allure and challenge of the Geeta and interestingly a concrete embodiment of its
central theme; that we are one in our diversity and individuality. A literal
translation of the title would be “Song of the lord” but this is misleading as
the Geeta is a psychological, philosophical, spiritual poem composed in the form
of a dialogue between the warrior Arjuna and his charioteer, the god Krishna.
The term philosophy is a compound of two words:
sophia, which mean “love for
knowledge”. The Geeta is that and much more in that it is rooted in the
psychology of human beings, represented by Arjuna, thus making it very practical
and pragmatic. And yet it is more in having a spiritual element expressed in the
exhortations of Krishna to Arjuna as he helps him understand and transcend the
conflicts encountered in daily life, duty and action. Thus it engages the human
intellect, spirit, body and heart. In Sanskrit, the poem would be called Brahma
Vidya. That term conveys an approach to knowledge that leads to knowledge of the
Self of all or Brahman.
Although the Geeta exists as a separate independent poem, it has been placed as
an episode in the Mahabharata to give it a concrete context while providing an
enduring metaphor. As you read the Geeta, you realize that the author regularly
refers back to the battle as the metaphor. It becomes clear that the author
never intended for this to an abstract document for the learned few but a
pragmatic voice to exhort all of us to be the best we can be. Every
philosophical reference is followed by concrete advice followed by a supportive
text showing understanding of the human struggle.
The Story of Mahabharata:
Dhritrashtra is the eldest son of the royal family of Kurukshetra. He has been
born blind and hence cannot be crowned king. His younger brother Pandu assumes
the throne and Dhritrashtra continues to live in the palace as his advisor.
Dhritrashtra is reconciled to this situation but it is a constant struggle for
him to not let his feelings of jealousy and injustice take over his actions. As
time passes, Dhritrashtra has a hundred sons called the Kauravas and Pandu has
five sons called Pandavas. Pandu dies at an early age and so the Pandavas are
placed in the care of their uncle Dhritrashtra who acts as the regent king till
the eldest Pandava son, Yudhishtir, comes of age. All the Kauravas and the
Pandavas are taught by the same teachers, are schooled in the martial arts and
grow up together. All the brothers
become excellent in the art of war but the sons of Pandu have many outstanding
qualities of compassion and justice while the Kauravas exhibit a jealous and
selfish attitude. When it comes time for the eldest Pandava, Yudhishtir, to
become king, the eldest Kaurava whose name is Duryodhan is not satisfied with
the situation. He covets the throne so he devises several plots to kill
Yudhishtir and his brothers. These plots fail. Then he devises other ways take
away Yudhishtir’s right to the throne. He sets up a crooked game of dice and
challenges the Pandavas to play. The Pandavas lose the game of dice and their
penalty is thirteen years in exile. During this time, the Pandava brothers
encounter many hardships and challenges, which they overcome, to emerge stronger
and wiser while Duryodhan continues in his unjust ways. When they return to
reclaim the kingdom, Duryodhana refuses to step aside. He does not even give
them a place to stay anywhere in the kingdom and war becomes inevitable. As the
two sides begin gathering armies, both leaders decide to go to Sri Krishna who
has the most powerful army of all and is also the acknowledged center of wisdom
to ask for help. Sri Krishna decides he must be impartial to all so he offers to
help one side with his vast army and to the other, he offers himself as a
charioteer and counselor. The Kauravas quickly choose the army and the Pandavas
choose to have Sri Krishna. Detailed description of the 18 days of war that
follow and the philosophy of the various teachers occupy the rest of the
The war ends with the Pandavas victorious; a triumph of good over evil, order
over chaos, justice over lawlessness. It is a symbol of the victory of the
positive forces over the negative ones functioning within the human heart and
mind as well as in the universe. There is a constant battle going on within each
individual to regain the lost kingdom of peace, happiness and harmony. The
Kauravas represent the negative forces within oneself that must be overcome to
achieve that goal. The Pandavas represent the good that is in all of us that
must triumph if we are to find harmony on this earth and in this cycle of birth
The setting of the Bhagavad Geeta is the battlefield of Kurukshetra on the eve
of war. The scene is set with the two armies facing one another in battle
formation. Arjuna, the second Pandu son is the leader of the Pandavas army and
his charioteer is Sri Krishna. Old King Dhritrashtra, who is blind, stands on a
hill overlooking the battlefield and asks his charioteer Sanjaya, to tell him
what is happening on the field of battle. Sanjay has been given the third eye of
visionaries, so that when he thinks with his mind, he will see everything taking
place during the day or night, in public or in secret. Sanjaya is a metaphor for
the third eye that exists in all of us and has the power to “see”. Thus, the
Bhagavad Geeta, the mystery of life and death as revealed to Arjuna by Krishna
is preserved for all to hear through the mediating voice of Sanjaya and through
our third eye.
The battle scene is symbolic of the inner conflict in man. Kurukshetra is not
only a physical place but is representative of the state of mind. The opening
verse spoken by Dhritrashtra sets the stage for the entire text of the Geeta
concisely stating this universal conflict. He asks Sanjaya: (Stoller Miller pg.
“Sanjaya, tell me what my sons
and the sons of Pandu did when they met,
gathered to battle on the field of Kuru,
on the field of Dharma”
The word Dharma in Sanskrit means a
combination of sacred duty, law, justice, righteousness and religion. Once the
context of war has been set and the metaphor established for good and evil
forces warring within oneself, the focus shifts from the action on the field to
Arjuna’s inner conflict. Arjuna is
in an abyss of dejection and despair. He cannot bring himself to act in a ritual
of carnage and destruction. Further he is having a moral struggle on the field
of war in doing his duty. He is in the conflict in having to battle his own
kinsmen and his teachers who have made him the great warrior that he is.
Understanding what his actions should be is the subject of the Geeta. Krishna is
the philosopher, psychologist and spiritual counselor who pours his dialogue
into Arjuna’s tortured soul to help Arjuna decide what he must do, why he must
do it and how to prepare emotionally and physically so he can do it with the
excellence required of him.
Throughout the text of the Geeta, Arjuna asks probing questions and expresses
his dissatisfaction with the apparent inconsistencies in Krishna’s answers. This
is a critical element of the Geeta. Arjuna’s voice serves in providing a voice
to the reader’s own doubts and questions, making it easier to internalize and
retain the message that is being given.
Even more importantly, it serves to illustrate that only the open and
questioning mind that can be exposed to advanced and higher thinking. Thus, in a
very pragmatic way, we are constantly encouraged to be in a state of a constant
seeking of knowledge, the self and God as the path to salvation. It also means
one should always follow the dictates of one’s conscience. We must believe in
what we do otherwise we will do it half-heartedly. When a human being considers
doing something, his conscience helps him choose what he will do by placing the
consequences of his actions- good and bad, helpful or damaging, right and wrong
in front of him. By following his conscience, he will choose the correct action
and he will have a firm will. Then he will be able to carry out the action he
chooses in the very best way possible.
Samkalpa shakti (will power) is the inner power and is the most powerful
force in a human being.
In the beginning, Arjuna feels he is motivated to engage in war for the rewards
of victory: power and wealth. This he feels is lowly and not worth the
inevitable carnage and destruction of war. He cannot destroy his own kinsmen,
ruin their families and bring about chaos. He feels pity for his kinsmen and
feels he is being unfaithful to his teachers. He is prepared to lay down his
arms and not go into battle. But what is his duty? He is a trained warrior; the
leader of the army, a revered hero and the prime hope of the Pandava army. What
is his duty towards those who bravely go into battle with him? Does the battle
signify the triumph of good forces in the Pandavas over the evil and unjust ways
of the Kauravas? So what should he do? This is what he inquires of Krishna as he
asks him to halt the chariot so he can observe both armies on the field of
Krishna observes that Arjuna is driven to fight by the egoism of strength; he is
turned from battle by the contrary egoism of pity and disgust. Compassion for
mankind will bring clarity of knowledge. The decision criterion is within him.
He must free his soul from craving and attachment to inaction as well as action,
attachment to various forms of virtue as well as the attractions of sin. To do
this he must see the Whole Truth; behold the Self that is a part of the Whole
just as the Whole is embodied in the Self. To do that is to get rid of “I” and
“my” forms of thinking; to reject the egoism of refusing to work through the
universal being as well as the egoism of serving the individual mind and body to
the exclusion of others. When he expands his thinking to comprehend beyond the
physical body, his and others’, he will see that the soul is indestructible.
“For certain is death for the born,
and certain is birth for the dead;
therefore, what is inevitable
ought not to be a cause for grief”
Thus, rather than thinking of war in terms of death and destruction, contemplate
the inevitability of the rising and setting sun. They both serve a purpose.
And Krishna says (2-37):
“If you are killed, you attain heaven,
If you triumph, you enjoy the earth,
Therefore, Arjuna, arise,
Resolved upon battle.”
If we were to stop here, this may seem an oversimplification and hence
unsatisfying. Even if intellectually this makes sense, the heart rebels. So the
remaining sixteen chapters address the alignment of the intellect, body and
heart and what follows is the real teaching of the Geeta; the practice of
“Make grief and happiness,
gain and loss, victory and defeat,
equal to your soul,
and turn to battle, lest you fall into evil.”
It is a classic illustration of the pragmatic nature of the Geeta that a choice
must be made in the face of conflict. For each person this choice may be
different; but it must be well considered and based upon their circumstance,
their training, and their duty. My interpretation of the message given here is
that whatever the choice or action is determined to be, one must excel at it.
And excellence can only be achieved through a state of non-attachment for
attachment clouds the judgement. (2-48)
Bringing the concept to an even more practical level, thinking about results
causes us to worry. Energy that could be utilized in improving execution is
spent worrying. Worrying about the results is wasted energy. Geeta advises us
“Be intent on action,
not on the fruits of action;
avoid attraction to the fruits
as well as attachment to inaction”
This is another good example of the power of combining philosophy and human
psychology. Non-attachment is a higher goal allowing us to maintain humility in
a success or confidence after a failure. We know it is distracting and a waste
of energy to worry about the future probabilities so it is best to not dwell on
consequences. By practicing non-attachment to results while in the midst of
action, we can be more effective.
A key enabler in performing well is discipline. The Sanskrit word
Yoga has probably even more meanings
than the word
Dharma. A healthy body and a
steadfast mind are the goals of yogic exercises. Preparation, good judgement,
self-confidence and a stable intelligence are required for excellent execution.
“Perform actions, firm in yoga (discipline),
be impartial to failure and success-
this equanimity is called yoga
Intelligence can be clouded by delusions and can be flitting, meaning that it
can lead us in different directions, resulting in a lack of focus. Once again
there is the emphasis on non-attachment. It will be a steadying influence
because love and hatred, grief and happiness, failure and success, friends and
foes all can equally mar judgement.
Krishna also goes on to explain what discipline looks like. First he says,
“discipline is skill in actions” and then goes on to elaborate: (2-53)
“When your understanding turns
from sacred lore to stand fixed,
immovable in contemplation,
then you will reach discipline.”
In its pragmatic way, the Geeta puts our thoughts into the words of Arjuna who
asks what does this kind of a person of understanding looks like? How does he
speak, act, sit and move? Krishna says:
“When he gives up desires in his mind,
is content with the self within himself,
then he is said to be a man
whose insight is sure, Arjuna.”
Krishna goes on to elaborate that such a man is free from sorrow, fear and
anger, he neither exults nor hates, has no preference for fortune or misfortune,
his cravings for pleasures and attractions have vanished.
“when, like a tortoise retracting
its limbs, he withdraws his senses
completely from sensuous objects,
his insight is sure.”
Thus we learn that personal harmony is both a requirement for excellence as well
as a characteristic of one who excels.
While maintaining this emphasis on action, Krishna warns Arjuna to be wary of
pride creeping in from his attachment to action itself; even that is weakening.
So he says (4-20):
“Abandoning attachment to fruits
of action, always content, independent,
he does nothing at all
even when he engages in action.”
Once again, my interpretation of this philosophy has a pragmatic value in
keeping Arjuna free from getting drawn into the pride of action itself. This is
useful later, in keeping him from feeling guilt or arrogance from the results of
the action. In this context, guilt from having killed his kinsmen in battle,
arrogance in the power of winning the battle.
Krishna understands that this is still very difficult for Arjuna to internalize
so he offers the next piece of wisdom. He says humans are instruments of a
higher being. God drives their actions. Arjuna can choose to believe in this
higher power and consider himself an instrument of God, doing His will. This
way, he can free himself from the conflict that is apparent to him. The wise
person sees that he not the doer, but all material acts are the act of Nature (Prakriti). The soul (Atman) remains a witness. One who
understands this will realize the Self; understand that there is no beginning or
end. If an action is done with this kind of devotion, it is not tainted by its
results. Just as the single sun illuminates the entire world, so does a person
who understands himself understand the Whole.
Towards the end of his discourse, Krishna goes full circle and reinforces the
concepts of timelessness and wholeness. He explains, think of the absolute as
fullness or infinite. When you add or subtract from the infinite, it is neither
increased, nor decreased yet it absorbs what is added and allows whatever needs
to leave to leave. Thus the Self is not contained in the three elements or
tamas. It is above them. The human
body performs actions, but the Self remains above them, untainted by their
stains and impurities.
The opening verses of the Geeta
establish the context of war. Soon thereafter, Krishna urges Arjuna to do battle
against his kinsmen. This fact causes utter confusion in the mind of the reader.
The pacifist in us is up in arms, metaphorically speaking, against a philosophy
that appears on the surface so cavalier. But is that correct? Does the Geeta
It does not. What it upholds is the concept of
dharma; truth, duty and knowledge.
That becomes abundantly clear as you read the remaining verses. The power of the
text lies in not making a mystery of what Arjuna’s choice is in the context of
his birth and position. What is your choice? That is determined by your context.
The power lies in the bulk of the verses of the Geeta devoted to urging you and
preparing you for making tough choices. The power lies in the integration of
psychology, spirituality and just plain pragmatism exhibited in practical health
tips and social duties outlined throughout the book.
There is no attempt at smoothing the rough edges of nature; no pat definitions
of good and evil. The war is not fought between Gods and Demons representing
good and evil. There is no release in the book from constant internal struggle.
That is also why there is no linear thread of logic to follow. The verses weave
practical and philosophical strands because that is how the human intellect and
heart functions. This makes for difficult reading for some but easier
internalization for those who actually are facing a difficult decision and read
the Geeta for realizing their internal strength.
Mahatma Gandhi, whose name is synonymous with non-violence, who believed in the
unity of mankind, who drew no distinctions between religions, races and
countries was greatly influenced by the Geeta. I admit that I do find great
solace in that. To me he embodied the ability to resolve apparent conflicts by
seeing the Whole in the context of truth and knowledge. He said his actions were
devoted to the welfare of all. Of nonviolence he said, “the dignity of man
requires obedience to a higher law – the strength of the spirit”. He, like Arjuna, fought for freedom
with action. For Gandhi action was the weapon of non-violence. Isn’t that what
the Geeta says? That in the ultimate, who can say what is action, what is
At the Harijan march of 1936, Gandhi said:
“I have nothing new to teach the world. Truth and nonviolence are as old as the
The Geeta makes sure that in espousing this higher philosophy, one does not get
confused between what is right and what is wrong. It maintains a forgiving
attitude towards those whose motives are pure even if their actions are not and
says that the learned sage sees no hierarchy between God’s creatures. All have
an equal chance at gaining nirvana. But Krishna also enunciates Prakriti
(nature) or the three Gunas (attributes) to acknowledge the internal struggle of
The universe is made manifest through three attributes or elements. Anyone who
has a body has the attributes that bind the soul and keeps it earthbound and
does not allow it to attain nirvana. By elucidating the attributes, Krishna
takes away any feelings of guilt that may be induced by the struggle against our
own baser instincts. He says, it is OK, it is natural and even acknowledges that
it is a struggle in which you will not always be the victor. That too is OK as
long as you try your best. Guilt is another emotion (like worry) which is a
waste of energy and Krishna finds no value in it.
The three elements that make up the universe are:
Truth or lucidity (sattva) is the highest, it is the illuminator and healthy and
it binds the soul to this universe through the attraction to knowledge. Note
that this is a passive state and in the context of war, nonviolence is a passive
state and a higher means to the same goal.
Passion (rajas) is next and binds through attachment to action. Cravings and
emotions characterize it and so it sees great conflict as a consequence. Note
that it is an active state and violence in the context of war is a means that
generates great conflict within us.
Dark inertia (tamas) is born of ignorance and it binds through sloth and
negligence. It is the stupefier of all body owners. There is really no easy way
to describe this state other than as an opposite of true knowledge.
Truth causes attachment to happiness; passion to action but the lowest is dark
inertia because it veils knowledge and causes attachment to negligence or
All objects in this universe are manifestations by nature of a combination of
the three elements. Transcending these three elements, which make up the body
allows one to escape the cycle of birth. For those born on this earth, says
“Lucidity (sattva), being immaculate,
is illuminating and flawless;
it binds through self-identification
with happiness and wisdom.
Know that passion (rajas) is emotional,
being born of cupidity and craving;
it binds the soul through attachment
to actions and their fruits.
And know dark inertia (tamas),
The deluder of all embodied beings,
As born of ignorance;
It binds one with indolence, sloth and sleep.
Arjuna, sattva urges one to happiness
And rajas to action,
While tamas, clouding wisdom,
Urges one to negligence.”
Krishna embellishes the concepts with details of how these three elements are
distinct yet they are ever present and act in coordination. The vigilant
aspirant is ever watchful of keeping inertia and passion tamed and contained so
that with the help of lucidity, he may ascend the path to salvation, undisturbed
and undistracted. Krishna advises the aspirant to practice meditation and seek
strength from the inner soul since that is the source of the greatest power.
When sattva is predominant the aspirant remains serene, calm and happy.
Elevating thoughts dawn during this time. This element is full of delight and
enlightenment and is helpful in maintaining mental and emotional equilibrium.
When this quality is not predominant one experiences a lack of calmness leading
to inner turmoil and conflict.
Examples of domination of rajas, are feelings of pain and pleasure, attachment
and hatred. Such a person is never satisfied, constantly pursuing objects of
pleasure. Such a person is prone to disease because he does not have the
discipline to control his appetites and practice moderation. Often such a person
acts on unconscious habits and impulses not understanding why he does what he
does. Thus criminals may confess knowing that they have done wrong, but could
not help doing what they did. This element can be directed positively and can be
an active force if properly utilized both for the individual and for mankind. This can be done by consciously
utilizing the knowledge one has to fight through the conflict one sees and
Tamas is sloth and inertia; it produces ignorance causing negligence and
destroys the sense of discrimination. It creates delusions and then one cannot
make decisions. This leads one to inaction and further a feeling of being
justified in their inaction. A lazy aspirant remains in a state of lethargy and
experiences negative feelings resulting in withdrawal from society. They are
controlled by negative emotions and are prone to mental disorders as well as
physical diseases brought upon by inertia.
These three elements dwell in every body and different ones may be predominant
based on circumstance. There is great wisdom in recognizing these elements as
being universal. It enables one to focus on improving oneself and not being
judgmental of others. When we recognize others practicing in a lower state we
can just see in them ourselves as in a mirror. We know we are the same as the
other and we can then be helpful and compassionate rather than judgmental and
vindictive. Just as we do not hurt our own body parts even if it is diseased or
handicapped, just so we do not hurt others as they are a mirror of ourselves.
Extend the metaphor of our own body, a whole that consists of many parts, none
of which we willingly hurt, to all of mankind and the universe, a clearer
picture emerges. We must fight and overcome internal and external forces that
keep us from seeking Truth and knowledge. Extend the metaphor to war and there
is guidance on what the warrior’s action must be. By placing his actions in the
context of the elements that make up the universe, Arjuna can make peace with
his act of war.
Dharma, Yoga, Jnana
The three pillars of
“Behavior is a mirror in which every one displays his own image” – Goethe
dharma- the concept of guidance through values
What is Dharma?
Essentially untranslatable, the word
dharma is derived from the root word
dhri meaning to hold or sustain. A man’s
dharma is the basis of his thought
and action. Dharma is what defines a
person, giving him strength to be who he is, his character, his attitude, his
inner core. Svadharma, individual and
personal dharma of a man, is
determined by his past experiences, including experiences in past lives which
are stored up in the soul and not destroyed upon the death of a body. These
experiences make up his svabhava or
character and how he will act. They determine his duty, his religion, his
philosophy, his beliefs, his inclinations, his instincts, his nature, and his
“He who does the duty ordained by his own nature incurs no sin”. Thus in the
eyes of God we are all equal and our actions are appropriate to our nature. The
natural dharma of one is not the same
as that of another. The duty of a soldier is to fight while the duty of a
teacher is to teach. What is right for one is not the right action for the
other. Thus, Krishna asks Arjuna to find the answer to his dilemma, the decision
to fight or not, by listening to the voice of his inner core, his
dharma, his upbringing, his duty. His
natural duty is the only reality for him; all others, the duties or viewpoints
of others are distractions, imposed from the outside and thus confusing. “One
should not abandon one’s innate duty imperfect as it may appear to be; for all
worldly enterprises are imperfect, like fire is rendered imperfect by smoke”.
While untranslatable, the meaning of
dharma is abundantly clear when used in context. Instinctively we understand
the concept and can act on it. Once we accept that our decisions and actions are
driven by our dharma, not our ego, it
becomes possible to act with humility, with non-attachment, without judgement of
our fellow beings, without pride in the results of doing good, sorrow in the
results of doing evil. We understand that the universe is made up of opposites,
good and evil, pain and pleasure, life and death. A perfect world containing
goodness or happiness only is a contradiction in terms; creation is possible
only in a state of chaos, of dissolution. If everybody were perfect, the world
would cease to exist. Thus, acceptance of the contradictions that constitute
Nature reduces inner conflict. We learn to draw strength from within and focus
on being an instrument of God or another power higher than we are.
Why Dharma? For Self-Empowerment
The study of Ethics concerns itself with the sorts of actions that constitute
virtuous conduct. “What kinds of actions ought to be undertaken?” What is right?
What is wrong? What is good? What is bad? However, the problem with this
approach is that the absolute guidance it seeks does not exist. Soon we build a
complex set of assumptions that fail to satisfy us in all circumstances and we
are back to square one. With this approach, the apparent contradictions that
make up Nature cannot be resolved. A logical disenchantment leads to emotional
frailty and a lack of a feeling of being in control of our own destiny.
To the question “What should I do?” the Bhagavad Geeta says, “Do your righteous
duty; be guided by your Dharma”. The
intellectual appeal of the Geeta is that it never proposes an edict that one
could disagree with. Emotionally, it is equally powerful in forcing us to
believe in an overall goodness and a sense of justice that must exist even if we
cannot perceive it in our lifetime. There is no concept of evil or sin. Every
contradiction can be resolved if you believe that the space, time, environment
axes are greater than what we perceive in our individual lifetime. Logically we
know that to be true anyway. Empires crumble and are born again. Families
prosper and loose their wealth. Intelligence is found in all corners of
humanity. What is good for you can hurt me. A lion must hunt the deer. Nature
has a rhythm all its own. Justice eventually prevails. Everything is good. Every
action is a will of God.
Thus there is no absolute definition of right or wrong, good or bad for a
person. Deal with right and wrong in the context of the individual in a society,
environment and time. There is no good or bad in an absolute sense for a person
born to this earth because an individual can only relate to space, time and
environment that he is born to. There is good and bad in and absolute sense and
someone, God, who can see across infinite time, space and planets can judge
right or wrong in the absolute. This precludes anyone born to this earth. This
precludes you and me from having any right to be judgmental of another’s
actions. If they have done wrong, they will be punished in ways we may not see.
Only God has the power to judge a man’s actions. This point cannot be
overemphasized, as it is the core belief in making your
dharma a “good” dharma. Everybody’s
dharma is a good dharma. Essentially a circular logic, central to the theme of
the Geeta, works because of this faith.
Be guided by your dharma, and you can do no wrong in the eyes of God. Whatever
you do, that is the right thing to do as long as you have listened to your
heart, your inner voice. I can’t think of a better way to empower yourself.
“Sages see with an equal eye the learned and
cultured Brahmin, the cow, the elephant, the dog” – 18th verse
Dharma? Excellence in Action
When doing good, it is easy to fall into the trap of feeling virtuous. This is
just as dangerous as feeling remorse when doing something bad. So you cannot see
yourself as doing good or bad. Such thinking leads us to see conflict and
reduces our inner strength. Krishna’s dialogue with Arjuna is lengthy because he
will not allow Arjuna to believe he must engage in the battle of Kurukshtra
because it is a war of good over evil. Arjuna must engage in battle because this
is his dharma; his dharma being determined by his birth as a prince; his
education as a warrior; his position as the leader of his army; his talent for
archery that made him the superb fighter that he is etc. etc. In short, his
birth, the makeup of his experiences and his character, his dharma, determines
his actions. He may see himself as an instrument of God in fighting the battle.
That will give him strength and inner conviction but he is not allowed to
believe that he can be the one to decide he is waging a war of good over evil.
If you think about it, you will see that there is great logic in this.
The context of the Mahabharata clearly sets the stage for the evil ways of the
kauravas. Krishna even acknowledges that with his divine sight, he sees that a
battle must be fought to restore the balance in this world. But, Arjuna is not
allowed to use this crutch, this feeling of righteousness. For a crutch it is
and not a very lasting one. War means killing your loved ones. How can there be
any sustained feeling of doing good in a situation like that? The realities of
battle are harsh and a crutch like that will not withstand the devastation that
is a natural outcome of war. Perception of conflict creates inner turmoil. It
will weaken Arjuna’s ability to act as he must; act as the unerring marksman
that he is; trained to be so by his revered teacher, who is to be his mark.
Why Dharma? Self-fulfillment
Krishna teaches us that fulfillment lies in the action itself, not in the result
of actions. Action dictated by our dharma is our salvation irrespective of the
result. Self-fulfillment comes from knowing we have done what we must do;
executed the will of God. Do your best and all will be well. If we get caught up
with results, it means we feel pride in doing good, guilt in doing harm. Who is
to know if what is good today will still be considered good tomorrow?
Action and execution of actions with excellence is what you control. Drawing
satisfaction from that is essential. This is a necessary corollary to the thesis
that good and bad is not for you to judge. There are no good or bad results
either if the context is large enough.
When you ask, “What is a pentagon?” there is one answer defined by science. When
you ask, “what is sweet?” there is one answer defined by your senses. When you
ask “what is good or what is bad?” there is no absolute definition because we do
not have an absolute sense of it and there can be no pervasive definition.
Most people would agree with Hamlet: “there is nothing good or bad, but thinking
makes it so”. Thus in the context of Ethics, it is impossible to define an
absolute answer to “What actions ought people take?” But in the context of an
individual in a certain situation at a given time the answer is simple – do your
duty. What your duty is should be a
way of life for you so every action is not a major decision hence it is also
called your dharma, your guiding principles, your philosophy, and your religion
or righteous duty.
Arjuna is a warrior by profession, leader of his army and he is in a battle. His
righteous duty is to raise arms in battle. Questioning the merits of war and the
destruction of his kith and kin detracts from his ability to engage in action in
a superior fashion. If he is to excel in action, he must not act halfheartedly.
Thus, Arjuna is never asked by Krishna to believe that killing his brother is
good or that he is a better person for killing an evil man. The Geeta never says
that war is good or violence is condoned. Quite the opposite. Death and
destruction are painful consequences of the act of war and given Arjuna’s role
in it he must detach himself from feeling pride in victory or guilt in loss.
Your duty is not defined by your absolute measure of right or wrong. Who you
are, what your circumstances are and right and wrong in that context define how
you will operate. If you happen to be a very enlightened individual you may be
able to understand why your duty is what it is in the context of society and the
time you are in, but that may be difficult and is not required. Sages, rishis,
munis who meditate at length in desolate mountains in the search of the true
self may be able to understand the cosmos but it is not possible for most humans
and not required. Thus the war of Kurukshetra and the destruction of war is
justified by Krishna as inevitable because a higher being, God, has decided it
is the right action because of the increasingly evil ways of the Kauravas. But
that is not for Arjuna to decide. He is not to feel a sense of superiority over
his goodness and engage in a war of good over evil. He is to remain humble in
his actions in performing his duty.
Provides a Structure for Change
A great barrier to decision-making is the fear of change. After all, choices
lead to action and action leads to change. Studies show that even good changes
like getting a job, marriage, an inheritance, winning a lottery cause almost as
much stress as unwelcome changes. From birth to death, we go through physical
and emotional change, our inner core is constantly undergoing modifications;
every life experience changes us and influences our interaction with the
To accept change as the norm and to accept that we ourselves must change as we
go through life is built into the concept of Dharma. Having a structure that
sets expectations for different criterion for decision-making, different value
systems as we progress from birth to adulthood and old age improves our ability
to interact with others who are in different phases of life. It promotes a less
judgmental attitude, as it becomes easier to see oneself in the other person’s
Life is divided into four approximate stages,
ashrams, where one’s dharma, primary
pursuit or duty, criterion for decision-making and framework for action is
appropriate to the stage of life one is in. Brahmacharya or childhood is the
first stage of life when one is molded and prepared to live a good life. In this
phase one should be guided by the discipline of learning, seeking knowledge.
True knowledge cannot be acquired without cultivating an ability to have
complete faith and trust. This mental and emotional development can best be
acquired by serving one’s teacher, the guru, as a disciple. Princes, such as
Arjuna lived in the forest with teachers such as Dronacharya, in spartan
conditions in forests, far from cities where all students, prince or commoner,
were taught under similar conditions and it was up to the teacher to decide when
they would graduate. Complete allegiance to the teacher was expected of the
students, as it was believed that one must learn with the heart, not just the
The second stage, grahastha ashram,
is when one becomes a contributing member of society. Typically, this stage is
marked by sensory and aesthetic fulfillment; material and social ambitions are
realized as a householder and by having a position, a job, work where one can
apply the knowledge gained during childhood. Arjuna is in this stage when the
battle of Kurukshetra takes place. He is a prince and a soldier and when he is
at war his decision framework is different from when he was a student. This is
the argument Krishna uses to reduce the conflict in Arjuna’s mind when going
into battle against his revered teacher and guru who he respects more than his
Renunciation must be practiced in the next stage of life in an aspiration to
achieve liberation from worldly pursuits. This means giving up control of family
affairs while reducing one’s physical and emotional needs and practicing
detachment from action itself. A very natural development, this phase is an
acknowledgement of the fact that as we go through life, we cease to draw
satisfaction from the sorts of activities that we enjoyed earlier in life and so
the best course of action is to move on to other things. The journey is more
important than the destination so this phase is the start of a new journey and
is preparation, much as childhood was, for the next phase of life.
The final push for liberation, moksha,
asceticism can be practiced in the last stage of life by becoming a
sanyasi, a forest dwelling hermit or
a homeless wanderer who answers only to God. It is the duty of a
grahastha to provide for the physical
needs of a homeless wanderer in this stage.
one’s own guiding principles for action, one’s duty, must be individually
defined according to the stage of life and position.
Yoga- The Concept of
“Discipline is skill in actions”
“Unreal is action without discipline, charity without sympathy, ritual without
What is Yoga?
The word Yoga has many meanings. Yoga is derived from the Sanskrit
Yuj meaning to bind, join, attach and
yoke, to direct and concentrate one’s attention on, to use and apply. It has
been likened to the Latin word jungere,
meaning, “to join”. It also means union or communion. It means “the disciplining
of the intellect, the mind, the emotions, the will; it means a poise of the soul
which enables one to look at life in all its aspects evenly” according to
Mahadev Desai in Geeta According to
Gandhi. “It means the yoking of all the powers of body, mind and soul to
One who follows the path of Yoga is a Yogi (masculine) or Yogin (feminine). The
goal of a yogi or yogin is to achieve a state that would best be described as
the opposite of what psychologists would call alienation or what Buddhists call
sakyadrishti, the feeling of separateness, of being cut off from being.
In chapter six of the Bhagavad Geeta, Krishna explains to Arjuna, the meaning of
Yoga as a deliverance from contact with pain and sorrow.
As a well cut diamond has many facets, each reflecting a different color of
light, so does the word Yoga, each facet reflecting a different shade of meaning
and revealing different aspects of the entire range of human endeavor to win
inner peace and happiness.
According to B.K.S.
Iyengar, “Yoga is a timeless pragmatic science evolved over thousands of years
dealing with the physical, moral, mental and spiritual well being of man as a
whole.” In 200 BC, Patanjali wrote the classic treatise Yoga Sutras that
systematically expounded on the mental and physical discipline as the path to
achieving inner peace. He believed that a person whose mind is free of conflict,
free of restlessness is in harmony. Such a person, by the grace of the spirit
within him or herself finds fulfillment.
Patanjali describes in detail the physical exercises necessary to hone the
instrument that is our body, the environment such as food and sleep, samadhis or
postures to still the mind in preparation for meditation for mental cleansing as
well as common obstacles to overcome. It is the foremost and most complete and
scientific approach to self-disciple as a path to success, which it defines as
personal fulfillment, to be seen in literature.
The practice of Yoga requires a firm foundation in self-discipline, faith,
tenacity and perseverance to practice regularly, without which it could be
considered mere acrobatics. According to Iyengar
“To win a battle, a general surveys the terrain and the enemy and plans
counter measures. In a similar way the Yogi plans the conquest of the Self”.
The Stages of Yoga:
Patanjali enumerates eight stages or limbs of Yoga as the right means in the
quest of inner understanding. The eight stages in succession allow one to
achieve first, harmony with the environment and other people. Second they allow
the Yogi to control the self – body and mind. Having achieved these two stages a
Yogi can then look into the innermost recesses of the body and mind to discover
his soul and his maker who are one and the same.
The first three stages are outward quests, which allow the Yogi to conquer the
body and render it a fit vehicle for the Soul.
Exercise or Yama and a regular routine or
Niyama control the Yogi’s passions
and emotions and thus keep him in harmony with his fellow man. Physical postures
that increase flexibility of the limbs, regulate our breathing and allow for
meditation or Asanas keep the body
healthy and strong and in harmony with nature
The next two stages are inner quests and they teach the aspirant to regulate the
breathing and thereby control the mind. This helps free the senses from the
bonds of desire.
The next three stages are the quest of the Soul. The Yogi knows that there is no
need to look heavenward to find God. His inner self is the abode of his maker
and this realization keeps him in harmony with himself and his maker.
When one has achieved the ultimate discipline one sees the Whole Truth. In this
stage, the knower, the knowledge and the known become one. The seer, the sight
and the seen have no separate existence. It is as if a great musician becomes
one with the instrument and the music that comes from it. Without one another
there is no reality for any of them.
The path of Yoga is the foundation for the three different paths to salvation or
nirvana or escape from the cycle of birth and death.
is the active man’s path. It is the path of action in performing his duty and
doing his work.
is the emotional man’s path where he finds realization through love and devotion
to a personal God.
Jnana Marga is the intellectual
man’s path where realization comes from knowledge and from control of his mind.
By practicing Yoga, the common man can hope to follow the path of Karma Marga,
the path of selfless action performed with skill, judgement, goodwill and
non-attachment. There is no hierarchy associated with these paths, they are not
mutually exclusive and indeed one may follow all three. Ultimately, the three
paths merge into one, are the same and are indistinguishable from one another
when traveled by an enlightened Yogi.
Distractions on the
path of Yoga:
Awareness of these distractions and overcoming the obstacles thus encountered
are the first indications of self-discipline.
Ill health or sickness – a yogi must keep his body in prime condition.
Just as an out of tune instrument cannot produce music or a broken vehicle will
not travel far so it is with a broken or unhealthy body. When the body is sick,
the mind is restless and meditation is impossible. Practice good diet and
Laziness and indifference – in this condition the mind becomes dull due
to inactivity, there is no enthusiasm, no goals. Just as flowing water is pure
and stagnant water putrid, a listless person is like a living corpse who can do
Faithlessness- self-doubt, ill will characterizes this state. Indecision
results because of constant doubts and conflicts. Faith is necessary to conquer
obstacles and feel happy.
Pride – a feeling of self-importance leads to justifying a path that
places the needs of oneself above those of others. This person is afflicted with
a false knowledge and lacks the humility to gain wisdom from others.
Lack of concentration – In this state one may know what must be done, but
cannot summon the stamina to do it. A musician can hear the music in his dream
but he cannot play it when he awakens.
Disciplines To Enlist on the path of Yoga:
To overcome the
obstacles on the path of Yoga, practice the following:
Friendliness – the discipline of
maitri or friendship is achieving a feeling of oneness with the
object of friendliness; thus it is much more than friendship. It is a feeling of
delight, such as that of a mother in the accomplishments of her child. It is an
ability to turn your enemies into your friends by having a feeling of oneness
Compassion – much more than pity and much more than action, it is a
combination of the two. When you can use all your resources, physical, moral,
mental or emotional in the sheltering of the needy and the weak, you show
karuna. You share your
strength with the weak till they can become strong. This is not a “survival of
the fittest” discipline.
Delight in good work of another – even when the other is your rival or
enemy, by showing mudita, a
yogi saves himself much heart burning by not being angry or jealous and showing
no hatred even when the other achieves a goal which he himself may have failed
Self examination – Upon seeing another who may have fallen into vice,
upeksa is a feeling of self
examination to understand how one would have behaved when faced with the same
temptations. Doing this allows the yogi to understand the fallen and be
charitable towards them while helping him to avoid temptation and stay on the
These are disciplines
of the mind and those are the hardest to execute. An unquiet mind cannot
experience these feelings and act upon them.
Constant Practice and
Yoga is not a theoretical exercise. Constant practice is the key to being well
prepared for action. In fact, Yoga places the greatest emphasis on
abhyasa, or constant practice
and calls it a spiritual endeavor. Everyone, young, old, sick and infirm can
achieve perfection through dedicated application. Success comes to those who are
well prepared. “Seeds must be pressed to yield oil. Wood must be heated to
release the fire within. The Yogi must practice to realize his inner potential”.
Jnana – The Concept of Harmony through Knowledge
“Action will remove the doubt that theory cannot solve” – Tehyi Hsieh
The art of
self-discovery is the subject of the
Bhagavad Geeta. Mastering this art may not be possible for all but to embark
on the journey of self-discovery is. Says Krishna, to know oneself is to know
me. To know me is to know that God is the strength in the strong, the
intelligence in the intelligent, and the virtue in the righteous, the wisdom in
the wise and the heat in the Sun. It is to have the will to engage in action and
to understand the embodiment of opposites that reside in body and mind.
Self-discovery is the path to true knowledge. True knowledge is self-knowledge.
In the context of the Geeta, knowledge is a journey as well as a destination.
And it is a journey that is full of obstacles. To embark on this journey armed
with physical and mental discipline, to live life as a yogi on this path of true
knowledge, no matter what the obstacles, is possible for all and so all can be
called knowledgeable. By understanding the obstacles and preparing to overcome
them, one who follows the path of true knowledge with faith and devotion has a
sense of peace and fulfillment. This is the message of the Geeta.
True knowledge cannot be bought or acquired since it comes from within. It comes
with experience. It comes from action. Education can be imparted but knowledge
has to be discovered or revealed. Attending language classes can make us
proficient in grammar and vocabulary, but cannot make us poets. That ability
comes from within. Knowledge is a synthesis of who we are with the world around
us. Education provides a partial view but knowledge allows us to see the whole.
Thus education is a tool to be utilized on the journey of knowledge but
education by itself does not guide us onto the right path.
Knowledge gives insight and wisdom and will free us from mis-concepts, eliminate
false behaviors and actuate a withdrawal from wrong ways of living. This in turn
generates a feeling of peace and fulfillment with oneself and with the world we
live in, a sense of harmony.
In Sanskrit, this knowledge is called “jnana”.
In describing a
knowledgeable person, Swami Nikilananda’s translation says “as the flying bird
leaves no footprint in the air and the swimming fish no track in the water, so
also the knower of Truth leaves no track or footprint on earth. He is known only
to himself and to those who have attained self-knowledge”. Even when engaged in
the most intense action the true self is immersed in peace and blessedness and
it is only the organs and the senses that busy themselves in this world.
True Knowledge: Sattvic Jnana
The Bhagavad Geeta calls true knowledge, the highest form of knowledge, as
“Sattvic Jnana”. It is the ability to see, that which is whole; which is more
than the sum of its parts. We see the “one reality that pervades all differences
‘ “the recognition of oneness in manyness” is the highest knowledge. Our body is
a good example of this. When we study anatomy, we see that there are many
different parts: heart, lungs, stomach, fingers, toes and head. But I understand
that while these are many parts, the whole is I. I understand the oneness that
is me. I as one entity, am pervading all the many parts. The highest knowledge
then is to be able to see the one Reality that pervades through all the names
and forms of the universe. If you touch my back, I might say, “why are you
touching me?” I as the one entity, am pervading all the many parts. The
importance of having this vision of oneness is that it affects our outlook and
how we perceive life, others, and ourselves. How we act. What decisions we make.
How does Sattvic Jnana influence
The most concrete example of true knowledge is our attitude towards our physical
body. Suppose, I poke myself in the eye while I am talking. I will use the same
finger to rub my eye and console it. I will not cut off the finger and throw it
away because it has hurt my eye. Sometimes, if I am eating and start talking, my
teeth will bite my tongue. Do I break my teeth in order to punish them? No, I do
not. My teeth are a part of me and I can no more give them pain than I can to my
tongue. I have no hatred towards my teeth. So we see that when we have a sense
of oneness we are immediately raised to a higher level of understanding. I have
an understanding that involves the individual parts and also the
interrelationships. All parts of my physical body are important and I am
impartial in my actions to all. I have an attitude of service to all. I have no
judgmental reaction. I have no desire to hurt or destroy. My only reaction is to
serve and assist.
There is a powerful corollary to this definition of knowledge. If true
knowledge, our ability to see the whole, this vision of oneness, brings in us a
desire to serve, assist and help, then the moment when we are unable to serve,
it means we need to revive our vision. It is not a lack of love or the desire to
do well. That is inherent in the nature of our soul and only its manifestation
is aberrant. That means you can do something about it and pretty quickly too
because all you have to do is change your attitude. The ability is already there; you
just have to let it become apparent.
This is an empowering concept. We are born with the ability to serve and assist
and to find peace and self-fulfillment. The Geeta says that true knowledge is
available to us all. We only have to seek it. Just as we know it for our bodies,
we can know it for the universe.
If one person changes, the world around him will be changed. Each of us
influences a great many people. The wise man hates none and is friend to all. Do
not wait for others to change; begin with yourself. You are the world and the
world is not different from you. This is also called the non-dualism of vedantic
knowledge and is the most complete form of knowledge.
is the truest form of knowledge. We can aspire towards
Sattvic Jnana by recognizing and
rising above lower or incomplete forms of knowledge. Those are called “Rajasic Jnana” and “Tamasic Jnana” which is the lowest
form of knowledge. Getting stuck in one of these and perceiving them, as the
whole is a trap we must avoid.
Rajasic knowledge is the understanding of the parts. This is when one sees each
thing separately and as unrelated. We understand the parts but not the whole. An
eye specialist may treat the eye, a painter may notice color and form, and a
musician may understand the notes. The trap in this is not only in missing the
higher experience such as music created from the notes, but in starting to
believe that the parts are all important – the notes are more important than the
music – that one cannot have music without the notes. This is wrong. Music comes
from within and can be expressed and shared using musical notes, but that is
just one method. Music will find expression but probably not from the person who
is lost in the notes. This form of partial knowledge is called
Rajasic Jnana and can be a trap if
The lowest form of knowledge is called “Tamasic
Jnana”and is a bigger trap. This is when one takes the understanding of a
certain part of the whole, and becomes attached to it instead of the whole. This
is when I get attached to my view, my object, and my path. Then my path becomes
the right path. My way is the correct way. The person with
Tamasic knowledge is intolerant and
fanatical. This narrow view of thinking makes everything appear to be a
conflict. One sees only winners and losers, only right and wrong, only my way
and your way. In seeing things this way there can be no benefit to anyone.
The Field and the Knower of the Field
Chapter thirteen of the Bhagavad Geeta uses the metaphor of a field (kshetra) for the human body and mind
and defines true knowledge as the ability to “know” the field. Thus a
knowledgeable person is one who “knows” the “field” and is called “knower” of
the field (kshetrajna). It defines
God, in the form of Krishna, to be the “knower”of the field in all “fields” thus
having the knowledge of matter and spirit –
Prakriti and Purusha. For Krishna all the fields
together are one field. What Arjuna can do is to completely know himself and
thus find God within him and thus know matter and spirit.
Self-knowledge is true knowledge and the objective for staying on the path of
true knowledge is to find God. Thus devotion to God is the same as devotion to
knowledge and is the stabilizing force in a yogi.
What am I? Who am I?
kshetra, has been described by sages
in many different ways says Krishna. Briefly, the field is made up of the five
subtle elements (ether, air, fire, water, earth), the ego, the intellect, the
faculties of knowing and doing, the five objects of sense (sound, touch, color,
taste and smell). Within this field reside the opposites of desire and aversion,
pleasure and pain. It embodies consciousness and resolution. The field is
constantly evolving, imperfect and subject to change.
While the word field is used in almost all English translations of the
Bhagavad Geeta for the word
kshetra, I have had some trouble with
using this word. Yet, I cannot think of a better word. Suffice it for me that
the word field itself can have a multiplicity of meanings depending on the
context. In the world of physics, field is an abstraction to express a force of
nature. Thus we have an electromagnetic field. It is a force of completely
abstract form and shape and can appear or disappear if the conditions are not
there to make this force possible. The field of gravity cannot be seen or heard
yet the force is undeniable. The human body is a physical manifestation of the
force that is our soul. Thus Krishna’s use of the word field is the way a
physicist would use the word field. The physical body is a field, which is the
manifestation of the forces of mind, intellect, ego, and spirit. The strongest
force in this field is the force of will power or
Sankalpa Shakti. It is specifically
called out in the Geeta as one of the most powerful forces a human being is
There is also a biological interpretation possible. The root word of
ksi, which means something that
decays and undergoes constant change. The human body, the field, is made up of
cells that are constantly dying and being replaced by new ones. Our method of
healing is through new cells replacing old ones. There is constant change, and
change is necessary for growth, new ideas, modifications, adaptations, learning
and all the activities that make us individual beings. Yet with change, the
body, the force remains uniquely identifiable and individual. Death of an
individual cell means life for the next one. Death of an individual body means
life for another. A body is not destroyed when an individual cell dies. The
force, of which the body is a manifestation, is not destroyed when the body is
gone. Thus there is one life force in all bodies and that life force is God. So
there is only one God and yet it resides in each body. Krishna calls himself the
Kshetrajna (knower) in all the
An ability to detach one’s true self, this inner force, from the interplay of
the body, mind, intellect, ego, the physical breath, the passions, the sensory
organs is the objective of the path of knowledge. It is from this belief that
the Geeta is rooted in its belief of non-attachment as a necessary companion for
traversal on this path.
Thus, in the Geeta, as in science and in nature, there is no distinction between
mind and matter. It is all part of evolution of the oneness of the universe.
Devotion as the Path to Knowledge:
Knowing the field means knowing all this. If you know this, you are the knower
of the field; you are knowledgeable. The characteristics of one who is
absence of egoism
draws strength in humility and lack of pride
absence of deceit
freedom from hypocrisy
straightforward and pure of mind and body
maintains a dispassion towards the objects of senses
awareness of the deficiencies inherent in the change that is birth and
endurance of the pain that is old age and disease
freedom from involvement with the self and its bondage to birth
freedom from the desire of possession and drawing identity from man or wife, child, household
able to calmly encounter the painful or the pleasant
self control through detachment
constant balance of mind both in favorable and unfavorable circumstances
This is a daunting list. To be knowledgeable all the time is difficult or
impossible. That is why the pursuit of knowledge, the journey itself is
positioned as important. An unflinching devotion to the pursuit of knowledge, to
God, can provide a focus and strengthen the will. Thus devotion to God, in a
higher being, is acceptable and even commendable for a person on the journey of
In this context, God is the personification of all the opposites. It is neither
a being (sat) nor a non-being (asat). It is everywhere and nowhere.
It is the perceiver of all senses and yet has no senses. It is within and
without all human beings and constitutes both animate and inanimate creation. It
is incomprehensible yet easily understood. It is at hand yet it is far away.
Though indivisible (like ether) it stands as if divided among humans. It is a
sustainer, creator and destroyer of humans and all knowable substance. The light
of all lights, it is beyond the darkness of
maya. God is knowledge itself; God is
also the object of knowledge and devotion is the path of knowledge.
Happiness and Barriers to Happiness:
The source of happiness is not in external things but within. The three elements
of sattva, rajas and tamas result in
different forms of happiness. Knowledge of the self is the enduring happiness.
It comes from long practice and is an end of pain. Happiness can appear to be
like poison in the beginning but is an elixir in the end, because it requires
arduous work, renunciation of worldly goods, meditation and concentration to
turn it into nectar. Happiness characterized by
sattva, does not, like sensuous
enjoyment, produce an immediate result.
Rajasic happiness, which arises from the contact of senses with the objects,
is immediate, fleeting and is like nectar at first that turns into poison in the
end. Tamasic happiness, born of
ignorance and delusion, brought by sloth, sleep, indulgence and negligence
deludes the self in the beginning and in the end is a poison that slowly
destroys the knowledge of the self. Self-knowledge removes from the mind, the
impurity of rajas and
tamas and endows it with serenity and
clarity and lasting happiness.
Several metaphors are
enlisted by Krishna to help Arjun understand these apparently contradictory
concepts. Arjuna wants to know: how can
something that makes us happy, even if fleetingly, be bad? What is the source of
evil if God resides within us and we are all good?
Desire, which leads to selfishness and ignorance, which leads to sloth and
laziness, are the enemies that reside within us and cloud the ability to judge
between good and evil. These are the fortresses of the enemy that we must avoid
getting trapped in. The forces that propel us towards these traps can be fought
through self-discipline and knowledge.
Knowledge is the core
that is surrounded by a fire of desire. Gratifying the senses is providing fuel
to the fire, which makes it grow. As it grows bigger it needs more fuel and will
consume everything in its path. One can learn and stop feeding this fire and
stop it before it consumes the core of knowledge. A wise person learns soon that
desire is the evil and does not wait for the result to learn his lesson. He can
teach himself to keep the senses tamed through discipline and moderation. Since
all opposites reside within us, the key to taming the senses is moderation.
Gluttony is as much a sin as starvation, sloth is as much a sin as being
overzealous. Passion and hate, pride and self-abasement are all equally large
barriers to lasting happiness.
Along with metaphors, the most common form of conveying values is through story
telling – as indeed the great epics are the greatest stories as well as
philosophies. So two of my favorite childhood stories seem relevant.
On Happiness: The Story of Two Cats
A big cat saw a little cat chasing its tail and asked, “Why are you chasing your
Said the kitten “I have learned
that the best thing for a cat is happiness and that happiness is in my tail.
Therefore I am chasing it and when I catch it, I shall have happiness.”
Said the old cat “My child, I too have paid attention to the problems of the
universe. I too have judged that happiness is in my tail. But I have noticed
that whenever I chase it, it runs away from me and when I go about my business,
it just seems to come after me wherever I go.”
On Knowledge: The Story of the Teacup
A man worked very diligently and acquired much prosperity and power. Feeling in
need of respect he gave much to charity and engaged in social welfare. Yet he
felt incomplete and betrayed by God, for had he not done all that was required
of him? What more could he do? Being a man of action he decided to visit the
famous Buddhist monk who resided far away in the mountains. The man enlisted his
fastest jet and his entourage and went to visit the monk in his humble abode.
The monk welcomed him with a big smile.
“Please be seated” he said and pointed to a mat on the floor.
“I know why you are here but first would you like a cup of tea?”
The man reigned in his impatience, sat down and said, “yes, I would love a cup
The monk handed him a teacup and started pouring tea into the cup from a teapot.
Soon the cup was half full, then full and then it started to overflow. But the
monk kept pouring.
After a while the man lost his patience and snapped – “the cup is already full.
The monk looked at him, smiled and kept pouring and pouring and soon the teapot
“Why did you do that?” asked the man and the monk replied “even a full teapot
cannot add tea to a cup that is full. How can I help you if you think your cup
of knowledge is already full?”
Integrating the concepts of Dharma,
“He who is equal in regard to well-wisher, friend and enemy,
to the indifferent, the mediator and the jealous,
also to the kinsmen, sinners and saints,
he excels, he stands supreme” (6-9)
In an oversimplified interpretation, Geeta says, to be born is to be in
conflict. Good decisions in the face of conflict will lead to excellence in
actions, which may lead us to an escape from the cycle of birth and death and
attain everlasting peace. The Geeta says that if we are born, we act. To be is
to act. So action is our duty; a consequence of birth. One path to the ultimate
goal of escaping this cycle of birth and death,
nirvana, is through excellence in our
actions. Excellence requires total discipline of our body and intellect, so that
we may exercise good judgement, make the right decisions. This will allow us to
have a clear conscience, to strengthen us in action and provide endurance
through the tough times and the choices we make. Even making no decision is an
act, a choice albeit an unconscious one. So we might as well be proactive rather
than reactive. Having proposed a philosophy based around action and discipline,
the Geeta outlines a procedure, using the metaphor of war to symbolize internal
human conflict, by which one may choose the right action and how one can execute
Duty or Truth
Dharma: None of us lives in
isolation. We have a duty to ourselves, to society and to nature to live a good
life. A good life means a life ruled by virtues of compassion, moderation and
love for mankind. This should be a guiding principle in deciding the actions
that we take.
Attachments of any form lead to lack of control over our body or mind, hence
poor judgement and lack of focus in execution results. One must be constantly
vigilant against them. Love for one can cloud our judgement just as much as
hatred for another. Not only that, attachment to results causes us to worry – a
complete waste of energy. If we attach ourselves to the result of action such as
success, we deflect energy that would be used into performing the action into
worrying about whether we would be successful or not. So detach yourself from
the results. Practice
Yoga of Knowledge:
Knowing about non-attachment is easier said than done. To be human is to be
driven by our senses and our passions. So always keep an open mind and seek
answers and seek the whole truth. Practice humility as only then will your mind
is open to receive answers. Seek knowledge.
Yoga of Discipline:
Knowledge does not come easily either. To do that, exercise discipline first of
the body and then of the mind. Practice Yoga. Practice moderation. Learn to
discipline your body and mind through exercise, meditation and practice
moderation in your physical needs. Sleeping too much is just as bad as sleeping
too little. Overeating is as much an abuse as not eating enough. Being proud and
arrogant is just as bad as having low self-esteem and groveling. Learn to
recognize and conquer all extremes in your behavior.
Karmayoga: People must work. Sages may find nirvana in meditation and a
few spiritual souls may find devotion to God as the path to freedom but for the
greatest number of people work is the path to salvation. It may not always be
clear what the action is or should be or even if inaction is the right form of
action, but figure it out and do your best. Negligence through sloth is not an
option for the karamayogi. Within the
framework of our duty, guided by knowledge, firm in discipline, we must act.
Decisions and actions are rooted within the larger context of the universe or brahamanda. The absolute condition
only exists over the entire concept of space (i.e. space-less); the entire
period of time (i.e. timeless) and the entire set of beings (a rock is the same
as a person, both creations of God) that populate this time space continuum.
Decisions must then be made in context, as one cannot know the absolute
condition. Hence there is no absolute right or wrong decision without the
context it must be made in. In Arjuna’s case the context is the war he must
fight because he is a soldier, a leader. That is why, in addition to our duty
dictated by our profession and our birth, we are given the context of time in
the several stages we go through in life from birth to death (child – be a
survivor; youth – be a learner; householder – be a provider; older – seek
Yoga of Devotion:
Even with all of this, there will be much conflict apparent because that is the
nature of this cycle of birth and death. Contemplating this too much and seeking
to directly correlate your action to a result is a form of pride. Give it up. It
will lead you astray from the path of excellence in your action. To feel
empowered and strong, believe in a higher self of which you are a part but not
the whole. While your actions appear to be driven by you, believe that an
external force drives them so that while your duty is to act you are also just
an instrument of a higher being. Thus you have neither the right to any benefit
nor any loss from the action. Practice devotion so that you may absolve yourself
from feelings of guilt or righteousness that may result from your actions.
With all the emphasis on non-attachment and not having any rights to the fruit
of the actions, the Geeta places the greatest emphasis on excellence in
execution of individual decisions. In fact, what is abundantly clear is that the
key concepts are developed so that one may achieve excellence. Thus
non-attachment, knowledge, discipline and devotion are not the desired end
states; rather they are the means to the goal of achieving excellence. Duty or
dharma is the framework for making
decisions and devotion or bhakti is
the spiritual cleansing for conflict resolution. For excellence is the only goal
that the Geeta allows us to attach ourselves to because excelling is the path to
escape the cycle of birth and death.
A myriad of interpretations is possible. This particular aspect may sometimes be
less emphasized in spiritual and religious interpretations of the Geeta but for
a practical person it is the most important aspect of the discourse. To me, this
pragmatism is what provides the enduring allure of the philosophy, making it
universally applicable. It is suitable in the diverse situations encountered in
nature. Additionally, there is the element of timelessness in its relevancy. As
long as human beings continue to be humans, focussing on action with the goal of
doing the job as well as it can be done, will take the focus away from conflict
and lead to personal harmony.
Thus we find ancient wisdom by focussing on the universality of human nature and
placing it in the context of the universe is applicable today just as it was in
the past, despite all the changes wrought by technology and politics.
How to Apply the Key Concepts to Conflict Resolution:
The 700 verses of the Geeta are devoted to helping Arjuna make one decision –
Should he fight or lay down his arms. As night begins, Arjuna is seriously
considering laying down his arms and seeking death as salvation. By morning, he
has decided to fight and lead his army into battle. The battlefield and the
battle are metaphors for human beings and the struggle of life; the fact that
life is a choice with no predefined answer; the fact that each person must make
an individual choice in the context of the whole of the universe.
Thus when Arjuna asks Krishna:
“Why do you encourage me to do this act of violence; kill my brothers and my
Krishna does not condone violence. Instead he identifies Arjuna’s real enemy as
his desire, due to attachment. He
identifies pride as another enemy in believing that his actions are solely
responsible for the death of another human. Thus he identifies Arjuna’s motive
for inaction to be just as impure as his motive for action. He says desire is an
enemy that can be overcome by arming oneself with discipline and acting to
transcend the limiting and narrow view resulting from pride and attachment.
Arjuna must see beyond the conflict so that he can be strong in his actions.
Human beings are not born identical. There are many different temperaments and
constitutions and within that context people may find themselves at different
stages of spiritual development. So it is perfectly natural to find teachings
that help people recognize and identify their individual state and find actions
suited to their needs. This is done by elucidation of the three attributes of
life: gunas. The psychological states
of human beings are linked up with the spiritual quest of man through the
concept of oneness with nature or
Prakriti. Identification of
humans as an element of nature provides a larger context for “I”. The three qualities (gunas) that
constitute Nature (Prakriti) are lucidity or truth (sattva), passion or senses
(rajas) and ignorance or dark inertia (tamas). All these qualities together make
up the nature of each individual and the universe. To be born is to have these
in oneself; however, sattva is the highest guna and in as much as that quality
prevails in human beings they can achieve excellence.
Conflict resolution requires spiritual discipline. The aim of spiritual
discipline is to overcome ignorance and inertia through activity. Activity is a
state of learning, karma yoga, leading to a higher state that is selfless and
brings wisdom, harmony and peace. In this enlightened state, the aim is to
practice devotion so as to overcome attachment to action itself. Such stoicism
may seem extreme till we realize that humans are not expected to be in either
extreme for long. One hopes that rajas completely dominates tamas and is guided
“For the sage ascending the hill of Yoga, action is the cause; for the same sage
when he has got to the top of Yoga, self mastery is the cause” (6-3)
Practical Do and Don’ts
“The greatness is not what we do, but unavoidably it is always in how we do,
what we do”
Take all the philosophy and psychology of the Geeta and boil it down to its
essence and we end up with some very practical tips. World philosophers and
spiritual leaders of today and yesterday teach tips that are not very different
“Happiness is an expression of the soul
in considered actions” -Aristotle in 4th century BC.
That says an individual must make thoughtful decisions and follow up with
appropriate action to be happy. After all, what do we all want from life?
Happiness. What do we all have? Soul. What can we all do? Make decisions and act
A bottom line oriented retelling could be:
work hard and smart and you’ll be happy.
The skeptic in us may go – is that so?
“In the arena of human life the honors
and rewards fall to those who show their good qualities in action” continues
Aristotle, integrating the individual into society, for we do not exist alone in
this world. We must live in harmony, not only with ourselves but also our
surroundings. Some examples of good qualities may be judgement, compassion and
diligence. Good judgement resulting in considered actions done with compassion,
followed by hard work, sounds like a nice way to define excellence or “eminently
good”. Since these are individual attributes, we are reminded that it is our
responsibility and our choice to excel for which the internal reward is
happiness and the external reward is success.
By adding the personal and societal dimensions and adding an external measure of
happiness, Aristotle makes the skeptic in us think harder, hopefully hard enough
to realize that thinking alone will not provide all answers. We must also enlist
Arguably no single volume of text has embodied this aspect of blending reason
and emotion more forcefully and emphatically than the
Bhagavad Geeta. Additionally, what I
like about the Geeta is that it squarely places the responsibility on the
individual to choose action over inaction, duty over self, knowledge over
ignorance, morality over selfishness, humility over ego and a universal love
over fleeting emotion. The motivational carrot it offers the person, who chooses
well, is nirvana; escape from this
cycle of birth and death where we must deal with such conflicts.
“A thought which does not result in an
action is nothing much, and an action which does not proceed from a thought is
nothing at all” – Georges Bernanos – 1955
Action undertaken after careful consideration of various options, guided by
moral considerations, makes you believe in yourself which in turn, gives you the
emotional strength to overcome obstacles encountered in the course of action.
Hence, the ability to choose well, make sound decisions, is the key skill in
business as well as in life outside the workplace. “A thinking animal, such is
man”. The ability to learn and think also means there is no prescribed formula
for anyone to follow in life. We make our own choices. We live as individuals in
the context of society and in relationship to others. That means change is a
constant force internally and externally. Not being a linear process of cause
and effect but more of a jumble of everything happening at once, we are always
in a state of making a decision for ourselves or being affected by another’s
decision. Simply speaking, you have to take sides. If you choose not to, you
will find yourself aligned on one side or another based on someone else’s
decision. Sometimes that maybe what you desire, other times it may not. You can
choose to be in control of your actions. If not, otherwise others will drive
Reason versus Emotion:
Reason and emotion are the two forces that drive decision-making. A combination
of the two is needed for good decisions. Born in 1623, Blaise Pascal,
mathematician and philosopher extraordinaire, classified the two extremes of
reason and emotion, when one dominates to the exclusion of the other as the
“skeptics” or “dogmatists”. Neither is desirable. Pure reason can lead to a
state of skepticism when the contradictions of the universe make no sense. As
for dogmatists, they base their reasoning on non-existent foundations. “Reason’s
final step is the recognition that there are an infinite number of things beyond
it; it is merely feeble if it does not go as far as to grasp that.” Powerful
reason becomes conscious of its limitations when it reaches them.
Pascal’s logic driven theory predicts that pushed to extreme limits, skepticism
and dogmatism would lead to a complete paralysis of thought and action. Nothing
will make sense. The duality of the universe, nature versus nurture, biology
versus culture, personal versus societal, mind versus body will always appear to
be in conflict. The only way out is to understand and accept this as part of a
greater truth, make decisions and choices one can believe in and allow them to
become your guiding principles.
“We come to know truth not only by reason, but even more by our heart… It is just as useless for reason to
demand of the heart proofs of its first principles in order to concur in them,
as it would be for the heart to demand of reason an intuitive knowledge of all
its propositions before accepting them.” (Page 246, Pascal)
One can derive from this that decision making is not a linear, precise,
mathematical process. It is complex, ambiguous and often, a compromise of reason
and emotion. Having a philosophical understanding of the universe and our role
in it for the short time that we live in it, can be a way to reduce tension and
Intellect and heart, reason and emotion, together, will provide you all the
information and intuition you need to lead your life. It is up to you to decide
how you will do it. Consider this image of
“..the soul as lord of the chariot which is the body, with the intellect
as the charioteer and mind as the reins. The senses are the horses and they
range over many paths, but are brought under control by the good charioteer who
has understanding and a restrained mind.” (page 50, Upanishads, Gita and Bible)
Excellence versus Perfection
People often confuse perfection with
excellence. To be born is to be imperfect. Nature is not perfect; life is not
perfect; I am not even sure perfection is a goal for us humans. I recently read
a story that really helped me understand this. The story is about a baseball
player who was so perfect that when he pitched, the batter was out in the first
pitch. When he was at bat, nobody could get him out. So what was the result?
Nobody could play with him. Life is like a ballgame; it works best when all the
players do the very best job they can, learn from their mistakes and then when
its all over go on to play the next game better than they did before. To me that
defines excellence and it is what we should strive for.
I like this story because a fear of not achieving perfection at something keeps
people from even trying things. If you don’t try it, you can’t get better at it;
you can’t excel.
Excellence is achievable; perfection is not.
According to Hindu philosophy, when we get so excellent at what we do that we
are perfect, we will achieve nirvana
and escape from this cycle of birth and death.
Decisions versus Strategy
In the context of war, the meaning of the
word strategy is easy to understand – it is a decision of really big scope. In
war there is always controversy and success is not guaranteed. Risk is inherent
to war and risk is inherent to a strategy. Alexander defeated the massive, well
rested army of king Porus by mounting a dual attack on the enemy, using his
tired and hungry soldiers who had trekked over inhospitable terrain for months.
A small army of his soldiers attacked as expected from the front while a larger
army trekked over more mountains and more inhospitable terrain, to mount a
simultaneous unexpected attack from the rear. His strategy was to utilize the
strength and complacency of Porus against him and to use the element of surprise
in the attack. His decision to split his troops, further reducing their numbers
was risky but it paid off. At the time it was made, the wisdom of this decision
was not obvious. A dubious value of the surprise element was being offset by the
certainty of hardships in further trekking across impassable terrain. However,
Alexander acknowledged this but felt he had only one winning strategy. The risk
was understood and communicated to the generals and the army so a coordinated
attack could be mounted. Using this example, the relationship between strategy
and decision may be based around scope.
Given that a large scope decision will drive several smaller decisions
made by several different people to attain the same goal, communication of the
logic or reasoning behind a particular decision or strategy becomes a critical
I versus You: Relate to Others
Decisions are made in a context and an environment. No decision is independent
of its environment and a critical component of environment is other people. No
decision can have a successful outcome if it does not consider people. So it is
imperative for a good decision-maker to develop skills that enhance
understanding of human behavior and think of the decision not from in individual
but from a group perspective. This requires a shift of focus from the personal
to the environment.
Data gathering is one tool for shifting the focus from oneself to others. By
getting inputs from a variety of sources, one puts the decision in context of
its environment. Thinking about people affected or involved with the decision is
the step when you complete this transfer of energy from yourself to others and
the environment. When you begin to think of the whole ecosystem and not just an
individual the result will be that the decision and actions are viewed and owned
by others also. This greatly enhances the chances of a successful outcome from
Whether you want to build a bridge, win a war or throw a great party, it is the
people who will make it happen. While this is an old truism, today’s “knowledge
economy” has turned it into the single most critical success factor for an
individual as well as an organization. Add this to the fact that in a global
business, environment isolation is impossible and free and rapid movement of
information is possible. Only people generate ideas, apply data to problems and
create knowledge. One quickly realizes the importance of having, retaining and
utilizing the best minds in a company. No more can an organization afford to
ignore the “softer skills” of management. People and human resource issues are
no longer to be relegated to a lowly status and to be the playground of
Fortunately this is not at odds with what our goal is; it is just a realization
that excellence in decision-making is not a solitary occupation. More than ever,
we must see the big picture, see the whole and its individual parts; think
creatively and with empathy. Good decisions, successful outcomes, cannot be
achieved without support from others.
Cherish people and relationships much more than your most valuable asset. Though
we think we are eager to treat people as special, in practice we often overlook
their needs. It is a natural mistake because people will generally recover from
our neglect whereas our cherished physical asset may not. But an asset can be
replaced while relationships get wounded. Wounds leave scars. What takes a long
time to build, such as trust, individual relationships or group dynamics, can be
destroyed very quickly and can then take a very long time to rebuild if that can
be done at all. Compared to that, physical assets can be replaced relatively
In honing your decision-making skills, take the long-term view. Understand
people. Understand their emotional and intellectual needs, motivation, drivers,
values, and limitations. But above all have empathy and never be judgmental of a
person. Judging a person is very
different from judging their actions and behaviors. The latter are fair game and
as a manager or leader may even be a responsibility that when carried out with
empathy and understanding will even be appreciated. The former is not.
Understand Human Nature:
If you understand human nature and internalize the fact that all people are the
same species, you will be non-judgmental. This will show through in all your
behaviors. You will know that you mirror every deficiency you see in the person
standing in front of you. And you will have compassion. Compassion brings you
A lesson in evolutionary psychology can be particularly helpful in enhancing our
understanding of people and their motivations. While technology is advancing at
supersonic and breakneck speeds, our physical and emotional makeup is programmed
to move at the speed of genetic mutation. Even glaciers are moving fast when you
think about how much humans have changed since they first evolved. So when it
comes to people, slow down and remember you are of the same species. And
leverage that knowledge. Do not let minor differences of color, race, culture
cloud your thinking in today’s diverse environment when you need creativity and
originality of thought more than ever.
Homo Sapiens emerged 200,000 years ago and
people still exhibit those traits that made survival possible then: fight
furiously when threatened, trade information, share secrets, propagate clan
living. So while the world around us has changed we have not. This does not mean
people are all alike underneath. But it helps to understand what has contributed
to our survival for so long and how it impacts the workplace. Understanding
leads to an assessment about how much to fight, suppress or enlist what we are
genetically programmed to do.
Barrier to Understanding Others: Self-Defeating Behaviors and Emotional Traps
If you understand yourself, you can understand others. But there is no limit to
self-delusion once you get started. We all do it because it is our built in
escape mechanism from dealing with the harsh realities of life. Accept that you
will do it periodically but then act and stop.
You can start by asking yourself at the end of everyday – Did I do what I choose
If the answer is yes, sleep easy.
If not, start asking yourself – Why? Invariably the answer is one that places
the responsibility for your action on someone else. This is your escape
mechanism from taking responsibility for yourself and why these behaviors get in
the way of your understanding others.
To instill self-discipline in this process, do a 5-minute retrospective every
night. Keep asking why till the answer to the question is more often yes than
Recognize self-defeating behaviors and emotions that get in the way of success
and stop indulging in them.
Emotional traps outlined in the table that follows are a form of wasted energy
that can be utilized in other more effective ways.
Why we do it
Action to avoid trap
Guilt and Worry
-Cause paralysis in the present moment.
*Guilt allows you to focus on past deeds and Worry on the future thus allowing
escape from the present actions required
*These are Self-serving false notions where we believe we worry about people we
love. If I worry about you, it shows I care and that somehow makes it all right
that I don’t really have to do anything for you.
*Guilt means we wish to reform ourselves so we can escape taking responsibility
for past actions. “I am really an OK person because I am suffering too and hence
I don’t need to do anything. Instead of becoming a giver, I can be a taker – of
*Make a list of the items causing you worry and another one for guilt
* Append actions that you did that are the cause of your guilt feeling to the
list. Do the same for the worry list except in this case they may not be your
*Seek information from a variety of people to validate or invalidate your
perspective. This action itself will help to get you out of the paralysis mode
*List actions you can take to reduce your feelings of guilt/worry
*Do something at the personal, social or societal level depending on what you
are worrying about and what your capacity is.
Don’t worry about world hunger; donate time or money to a charitable cause
Anger and Blame
-Cause wasted energy in seeking justice
*Justify maintaining the current situation while shifting responsibility
* Inclination to perpetuate the past decisions even if we know them to be
*Remind yourself of the objectives- why you started on this to begin with.
*Propose several alternatives and make a conscious effort to list
*Remember you are planning. The status quo gets older and less desirable with
Regret or Exultation
-Cause paralysis in the present moment
Inclination to perpetuate the past decisions even if we know them to be mistakes
or only minor wins
*Seek opinions from people uninvolved with past history
*Do not get your ego involved. A bad result does not mean a bad decision was
*cultivate an environment where employees are rewarded for their decision making
skills with the data at hand rather than solely on outcomes
Approval Seeking or Approval
-Cause unhealthy relationships based on unsustainable emotions
Seeking information in support of our bias or action while discounting opposing
information or action
*Get someone you respect to play devil’s advocate
*Ask open ended questions when gathering data
*Apply equal rigor in examining all data whether it be confirming or opposing
Low Self-Esteem or High Ego
- Cause avoidance in taking on responsibility for action.
It is a safety mechanism to keep us from being emotionally destroyed when we
perceive ourselves to have failed.
*Don’t be judgmental of yourself or others
*Measure your success by engaging in activity and not become attached to the
*Enjoy doing the task at hand without waiting to feel good after the task
Victim or Conqueror
-Cause unhealthy relationships based on unsustainable emotions
Allows misstating the problem so as to undermine the whole decision making
*Pose the problem in a neutral fashion with some built in redundancy
*Try several different frames before accepting one
*Evaluate the frame throughout the process against the goals
Elements of Non-Judgmental behaviors: Verification Exercise
Understanding human behavior means empathizing with people. This can only be
done if we see all humans as being one and our duty in life to be dictated by
factors larger than any individual or society. This understanding and actions
are not bounded by space-time considerations.
In verifying that you took a non-judgmental approach ask yourself if in making
your decisions were you:
Detached or equally attached to all involved parties?
Detached or equally attached to the possible outcomes for the different parties?
If truthfully the answer is yes, you are unbiased and are taking the right
To visualize an empowered person, think of what S. Radhakrishnan said in the
context of describing Gandhi:
“He who wrongs no one fears no one. He has nothing to hide and so is fearless.
He looks everyone in the face. His step is firm, his body upright, and his words
are direct and straight.” - S. Radhakrishnan in Gandhi – all men
Be self-confident – you are the instrument of God.
Enlist your Will Power – It is your strongest ally in times of conflict.
The power is within you.
Ask questions to increase your knowledge – seek counsel from others
keeping an open mind
Take time to reflect before making a decision – the choice is yours so
having gathered enough data, make your own decision.
Make the right decision – enlist your heart and mind till you have
resolved all conflict and firmly believe in the decision you have made. There is
no room for ambiguity in believing in your choice.
Practice moderation and self discipline- Eat right, exercise the body and
meditate to calm the mind. A healthy body is necessary for doing your best. It
is also a prerequisite for achieving control over your mind. A flitting mind
leads to lack of focus.
Help others – increase your viewpoint to include others. Others doing
well can make you feel just as good as doing well yourself.
Be calm – excess emotion is a waste of energy and can sway judgement. If
you find yourself agitated, wait till you are calm and balanced before making
When faced with tough choices, don’t take refuge in inaction - make
decisions and follow up with action.
Don’t be judgmental of others – it keeps you from being kind. See the
failings of others as mirrors into yourself and understand that you too may need
help sometime. This will impact how you behave with others.
Don’t worry – it wastes precious energy. This can be achieved by not
thinking about results.
Don’t feel Guilt – it keeps you from correcting the wrong you did. It is
a negative outlet for energy.
Instead do something to compensate for your misbehavior. Charity is a
positive channel for this energy.
Don’t make excuses for yourself – you can overcome the lower urges and
tendencies if you try. This is a constant struggle. Acknowledge that and just
Don’t focus on your weaknesses – this is another escape route to inaction
and comes couched with self-pity
Don’t focus on perfection – there is no such thing on earth and it can
keep you from acting by making you feel inadequate and afraid. To be born is to
be imperfect. That is why the cycle of birth and death exists. Perfection only
exists in Nirvana.
Don’t be slaves to your senses – senses are for your protection but can
easily overpower and control your actions. Being aware is the first step in
being in control of you.
Decision Making and Action as a Process
One hopes that decision making is the conscious compromise of reason and emotion
influenced by internal and external forces where the tradeoffs and risks are
understood and communicated. In reality, decisions are often made in a split
second. How often have you heard about that defining moment, with much of the
rationalizing and action planning done afterwards? Either way works. This is
perfectly acceptable because the process of decision making is not linear, it is
not prescriptive and it is subject to change based on unforeseen happenings.
Thus one may argue, why bother to understand the logic that drives a decision,
why understand the emotion? Why treat a complex non-linear process as if it
could be sliced and diced along the
axes of reason, emotion and philosophy? Why pretend that that we can take a
logical step by step approach when there is not a clear beginning or end to a
Do it because it can be done. Understand the limitations and advantages of the
process. Do it because it is a better option to be prepared than to be
unprepared. Understand that preparation may not always position you optimally.
Do it because it improves the odds in the game of life. Do it because there is
no other better way.