This article was recorded by Ida Ansell in shorthand. As, however, Swamiji’s speed was too great for her in her early days, dots are put in the articles to indicate the omissions, while the words within square brackets are added by way of linking up the disconnected parts.
(Delivered in San Francisco, on May 29, 1900)
Arjuna asks: “You just advised action, and yet you uphold knowledge of Brahman as the highest form of life. Krishna, if you think that knowledge is better than action, why do you tell me to act?” (Gita III. 1.)
[Shri Krishna]: “From ancient times these two systems have come down to us. The Sânkhya philosophers advance the theory of knowledge. The Yogis advance the theory of work. But none can attain to peace by renouncing actions. None in this life can stop activity even for a moment. Nature’s qualities [Gunas] will make him act. He who stops his activities and at the same time is still thinking about them attains to nothing; he only becomes a hypocrite. But he who by the power of his mind gradually brings his sense-organs under control, employing them in work, that man is better. Therefore do thou work.” (Ibid. 2-8.) …
“Even if you have known the secret that you have no duty, that you are free, still you have to work for the good of others. Because whatever a great man does, ordinary people will do also. (Ibid. 20-21.) If a great man who has attained peace of mind and freedom ceases to work, then all the rest without that knowledge and peace will try to imitate him, and thus confusion would arise. (Ibid. 22-24.)
“Behold, Arjuna, there is nothing that I do not possess and nothing that I want to acquire. And yet I continue to work. If I stopped work for a moment, the whole universe would [be destroyed]. (Ibid. 22-24.) That which the ignorant do with desire for results and gain, let the wise do without any attachment and without any desire for results and gain.” (Ibid. 25.)
Even if you have knowledge, do not disturb the childlike faith of the ignorant. On the other hand, go down to their level and gradually bring them up. (Ibid. 26, 29.) That is a very powerful idea, and it has become the ideal in India. That is why you can see a great philosopher going into a temple and worshipping images. It is not hypocrisy.
Later on we read what Krishna says, “Even those who worship other deities are really worshipping me.” (Ibid. IX. 23.) It is God incarnate whom man is worshipping. Would God be angry if you called Him by the wrong name? He would be no God at all! Can’t you understand that whatever a man has in his own heart is God — even if he worships a stone? What of that!
We will understand more clearly if we once get rid of the idea that religion consists in doctrines. One idea of religion has been that the whole world was born because Adam ate the apple, and there is no way of escape. Believe in Jesus Christ — in a certain man’s death! But in India there is quite a different idea. [There] religion means realisation, nothing else. It does not matter whether one approaches the destination in a carriage with four horses, in an electric car, or rolling on the ground. The goal is the same. For the [Christians] the problem is how to escape the wrath of the terrible God. For the Indians it is how to become what they really are, to regain their lost Selfhood. …
Have you realised that you are spirit? When you say, “I do,” what is meant by that — this lump of flesh called the body or the spirit, the infinite, ever blessed, effulgent, immortal? You may be the greatest philosopher, but as long as you have the idea that you are the body, you are no better than the little worm crawling under your foot! No excuse for you! So much the worse for you that you know all the philosophies and at the same time think you are the body! Body-gods, that is what you are! Is that religion?
Religion is the realisation of spirit as spirit. What are we doing now? Just the opposite, realising spirit as matter. Out of the immortal God we manufacture death and matter, and out of dead dull matter we manufacture spirit. …
If you [can realise Brahman] by standing on your head, or on one foot, or by worshipping five thousand gods with three heads each — welcome to it! … Do it any way you can! Nobody has any right to say anything. Therefore, Krishna says, if your method is better and higher, you have no business to say that another man’s method is bad, however wicked you may think it.
Again, we must consider, religion is a [matter of] growth, not a mass of foolish words. Two thousand years ago a man saw God. Moses saw God in a burning bush. Does what Moses did when he saw God save you? No man’s seeing God can help you the least bit except that it may excite you and urge you to do the same thing. That is the whole value of the ancients’ examples. Nothing more. [Just] signposts on the way. No man’s eating can satisfy another man. No man’s seeing God can save another man. You have to see God yourself. All these people fighting about what God’s nature is — whether He has three heads in one body or five heads in six bodies. Have you seen God? No. … And they do not believe they can ever see Him. What fools we mortals be! Sure, lunatics!
[In India] it has come down as a tradition that if there is a God, He must be your God and my God. To whom does the sun belong! You say Uncle Sam is everybody’s uncle. If there is a God, you ought to be able to see Him. If not, let Him go.
Each one thinks his method is best. Very good! But remember, it may be good for you. One food which is very indigestible to one is very digestible to another. Because it is good for you, do not jump to the conclusion that your method is everybody’s method, that Jack’s coat fits John and Mary. All the uneducated, uncultured, unthinking men and women have been put into that sort of strait jacket! Think for yourselves. Become atheists! Become materialists! That would be better. Exercises the mind! … What right have you to say that this man’s method is wrong? It may be wrong for you. That is to say, if you undertake the method, you will be degraded; but that does not mean that he will be degraded. Therefore, says Krishna, if you have knowledge and see a man weak, do not condemn him. Go to his level and help him if you can. He must grow. I can put five bucketfuls of knowledge into his head in five hours. But what good will it do? He will be a little worse than before.
Whence comes all this bondage of action? Because we chain the soul with action. According to our Indian system, there are two existences: nature on the one side and the Self, the Atman, on the other. By the word nature is meant not only all this external world, but also our bodies, the mind, the will, even down to what says “I”. Beyond all that is the infinite life and light of the soul — the Self, the Atman. … According to this philosophy the Self is entirely separate from nature, always was and always will be. … There never was a time, when the spirit could be identified even with the mind. …
It is self-evident that the food you eat is manufacturing the mind all the time. It is matter. The Self is above any connection with food. Whether you eat or not does not matter. Whether you think or not … does not matter. It is infinite light. Its light is the same always. If you put a blue or a green glass [before a light], what has that to do with the light? Its colour is unchangeable. It is the mind which changes and gives the different colours. The moment the spirit leaves the body, the whole thing goes to pieces.
The reality in nature is spirit. Reality itself — the light of the spirit — moves and speaks and does everything [through our bodies, minds, etc.]. It is the energy and soul and life of the spirit that is being worked upon in different ways by matter…. The spirit is the cause of all our thoughts and body-action and everything, but it is untouched by good or evil, pleasure or pain, heat or cold, and all the dualism of nature, although it lends its light to everything.
“Therefore, Arjuna, all these actions are in nature. Nature … is working out her own laws in our bodies and minds. We identify ourselves with nature and say, ‘I am doing this.’ This way delusion seizes us.” (Ibid. III. 27.)
We always act under some compulsion. When hunger compels me, I eat. And suffering is still worse — slavery. That real “I” is eternally free. What can compel it to do anything? The sufferer is in nature. It is only when we identify ourselves with the body that we say, “I am suffering; I am Mr. So and-so” — all such nonsense. But he who has known the truth, holds himself aloof. Whatever his body does, whatever his mind does, he does not care. But mind you, the vast majority of mankind are under this delusion; and whenever they do any good, they feel that they are [the doers]. They are not yet able to understand higher philosophy. Do not disturb their faith! They are shunning evil and doing good. Great idea! Let them have it! … They are workers for good. By degrees they will think that there is greater glory than that of doing good. They will only witness, and things are done…. Gradually they will understand. When they have shunned all evil and done all good, then they will begin to realise that they are beyond all nature. They are not the doers. They stand [apart]. They are the … witness. They simply stand and look. Nature is begetting all the universe…. They turn their backs. “In the beginning, O beloved, there only existed that Existence. Nothing else existed. And That [brooding], everything else was created.” (Chhândogya, VI. ii. 2-3.)
“Even those who know the path act impelled by their own nature. Everyone acts according to his nature. He cannot transcend it.”(Gita, III. 33.) The atom cannot disobey the law. Whether it is the mental or the physical atom, it must obey the law. “What is the use of [external restraint]?” (Gita, III. 33.)
What makes the value of anything in life? Not enjoyment, not possessions. Analyse everything. You will find there is no value except in experience, to teach us something. And in many cases it is our hardships that give us better experience than enjoyment. Many times blows give us better experience than the caresses of nature…. Even famine has its place and value….
According to Krishna, we are not new beings just come into existence. Our minds are not new minds…. In modern times we all know that every child brings [with him] all the past, not only of humanity, but of the plant life. There are all the past chapters, and this present chapter, and there are a whole lot of future chapters before him. Everyone has his path mapped and sketched and planned out for him. And in spite of all this darkness, there cannot be anything uncaused — no event, no circumstance…. It is simply our ignorance. The whole infinite chain of causation … is bound one link to another back to nature. The whole universe is bound by that sort of chain. It is the universal [chain of] cause and effect, you receiving one link, one part, I another…. And that [part] is our own nature.
Now Shri Krishna says: “Better die in your own path than attempt the path of another.”(Ibid. 35.) This is my path, and I am down here. And you are way up there, and I am always tempted to give up my path thinking I will go there and be with you. And if I go up, I am neither there nor here. We must not lose sight of this doctrine. It is all [a matter of] growth. Wait and grow, and you attain everything; otherwise there will be [great spiritual danger]. Here is the fundamental secret of teaching religion.
What do you mean by “saving people” and all believing in the same doctrine? It cannot be. There are the general ideas that can be taught to mankind. The true teacher will be able to find out for you what your own nature is. Maybe you do not know it. It is possible that what you think is your own nature is all wrong. It has not developed to consciousness. The teacher is the person who ought to know…. He ought to know by a glance at your face and put you on [your path]. We grope about and struggle here and there and do all sorts of things and make no progress until the time comes when we fall into that life-current and are carried on. The sign is that the moment we are in that stream we will float. Then there is no more struggle. This is to be found out. Then die in that [path] rather than giving it up and taking hold of another.
Instead, we start a religion and make a set of dogmas and betray the goal of mankind and treat everyone [as having] the same nature. No two persons have the same mind or the same body. … No two persons have the same religion….
If you want to be religious, enter not the gate of any organised religions. They do a hundred times more evil than good, because they stop the growth of each one’s individual development. Study everything, but keep your own seat firm. If you take my advice, do not put your neck into the trap. The moment they try to put their noose on you, get your neck out and go somewhere else. [As] the bee culling honey from many flowers remains free, not bound by any flower, be not bound…. Enter not the door of any organised religion. [Religion] is only between you and your God, and no third person must come between you. Think what these organised religions have done! What Napoleon was more terrible than those religious persecutions? . . . If you and I organise, we begin to hate every person. It is better not to love, if loving only means hating others. That is no love. That is hell! If loving your own people means hating everybody else, it is the quintessence of selfishness and brutality, and the effect is that it will make you brutes. Therefore, better die working out your own natural religion than following another’s natural religion, however great it may appear to you. (Ibid. 35.)
“Beware, Arjuna, lust and anger are the great enemies. These are to be controlled. These cover the knowledge even of those [who are wise]. This fire of lust is unquenchable. Its location is in the sense-organs and in the mind. The Self desires nothing. (Ibid. 37, 40.)
“This Yoga I taught in ancient times [to Vivaswân; Vivaswan taught it to Manu]. … Thus it was that the knowledge descended from one thing to another. But in time this great Yoga was destroyed. That is why I am telling it to you again today.” (Ibid. IV. 1-3.)
Then Arjuna asks, “Why do you speak thus? You are a man born only the other day, and [Vivaswan was born long before you]. What do you mean that you taught him?” (Ibid. 4.)
Then Krishna says, “O Arjuna, you and I have run the cycle of births and deaths many times, but you are not conscious of them all. I am without beginning, birthless, the absolute Lord of all creation. I through my own nature take form. Whenever virtue subsides and wickedness prevails, I come to help mankind. For the salvation of the good, for the destruction of wickedness, for the establishment of spirituality I come from time to time. Whosoever wants to reach me through whatsoever ways, I reach him through that. But know, Arjuna, none can ever swerve from my path.” (Ibid. 5-8, 11.) None ever did. How can we? None swerves from His path.
… All societies are based upon bad generalisation. The law can only be formed upon perfect generalisation. What is the old saying: Every law has its exception? … If it is a law, it cannot be broken. None can break it. Does the apple break the law of gravitation? The moment a law is broken, no more universe exists. There will come a time when you will break the law, and that moment your consciousness, mind, and body will melt away.
There is a man stealing there. Why does he steal? You punish him. Why can you not make room for him and put his energy to work? … You say, “You are a sinner,” and many will say he has broken the law. All this herd of mankind is forced [into uniformity] and hence all trouble, sin, and weakness…. The world is not as bad as you think. It is we fools who have made it evil. We manufacture our own ghosts and demons, and then … we cannot get rid of them. We put our hands before our eyes and cry: “Somebody give us light.” Fools! Take your hands from your eyes! That is all there is to it…. We call upon the gods to save us and nobody blames himself. That is the pity of it. Why is there so much evil in society? What is it they say? Flesh and the devil and the woman. Why make these things [up]? Nobody asks you to make them [up]. “None, O Arjuna, can swerve from my path.” (Ibid. 11.) We are fools, and our paths are foolish. We have to go through all this Mâyâ. God made the heaven, and man made the hell for himself.
“No action can touch me. I have no desire for the results of action. Whosoever knows me thus knows the secret and is not bound by action. The ancient sages, knowing this secret [could safely engage in action]. Do thou work in the same fashion. (Ibid. 14-15.)
“He who sees in the midst of intense activity, intense calm, and in the midst of intensest peace is intensely active [is wise indeed]. (Ibid 18.) … This is the question: With every sense and every organ active, have you that tremendous peace [so that] nothing can disturb you? Standing on Market Street, waiting for the car with all the rush … going on around you, are you in meditation — calm and peaceful? In the cave, are you intensely active there with all quiet about you? If you are, you are a Yogi, otherwise not.
“[The seers call him wise] whose every attempt is free, without any desire for gain, without any selfishness.” (Ibid. 19). Truth can never come to us as long as we are selfish. We colour everything with our own selves. Things come to us as they are. Not that they are hidden, not at all! We hide them. We have the brush. A thing comes, and we do not like it, and we brush a little and then look at it. … We do not want to know. We paint everything with ourselves. In all action the motive power is selfishness. Everything is hidden by ourselves. We are like the caterpillar which takes the thread out of his own body and of that makes the cocoon, and behold, he is caught. By his own work he imprisons himself. That is what we are doing. The moment I say “me” the thread makes a turn. “I and mine,” another turn. So it goes. …
We cannot remain without action for a moment. Act! But just as when your neighbour asks you, “Come and help me!” have you exactly the same idea when you are helping yourself. No more. Your body is of no more value than that of John. Don’t do anything more for your body than you do for John. That is religion.
“He whose efforts are bereft of all desire and selfishness has burnt all this bondage of action with the fire of knowledge. He is wise.” (Ibid. 19.) Reading books cannot do that. The ass can be burdened with the whole library; that does not make him learned at all. What is the use of reading many books? “Giving up all attachment to work, always satisfied, not hoping for gain, the wise man acts and is beyond action.” (Ibid. 20.) …
Naked I came out of my mother’s womb and naked I return. Helpless I came and helpless I go. Helpless I am now. And we do not know [the goal]. It is terrible for us to think about it. We get such odd ideas! We go to a medium and see if the ghost can help us. Think of the weakness! Ghosts, devils, gods, anybody — come on! And all the priests, all the charlatans! That is just the time they get hold of us, the moment we are weak. Then they bring in all the gods.
I see in my country a man becomes strong, educated, becomes a philosopher, and says, “All this praying and bathing is nonsense.” … The man’s father dies, and his mother dies. That is the most terrible shock a Hindu can have. You will find him bathing in every dirty pool, going into the temple, licking the dust. … Help anyone! But we are helpless. There is no help from anyone. That is the truth. There have been more gods than human beings; and yet no help. We die like dogs — no help. Everywhere beastliness, famine, disease, misery, evil! And all are crying for help. But no help. And yet, hoping against hope, we are still screaming for help. Oh, the miserable condition! Oh, the terror of it! Look into your own heart! One half of [the trouble] is not our fault, but the fault of our parents. Born with this weakness, more and more of it was put into our heads. Step by step we go beyond it.
It is a tremendous error to feel helpless. Do not seek help from anyone. We are our own help. If we cannot help ourselves, there is none to help us. … “Thou thyself art thy only friend, thou thyself thy only enemy. There is no other enemy but this self of mine, no other friend but myself.” (Ibid. VI. 5.) This is the last and greatest lesson, and Oh, what a time it takes to learn it! We seem to get hold of it, and the next moment the old wave comes. The backbone breaks. We weaken and again grasp for that superstition and help. Just think of that huge mass of misery, and all caused by this false idea of going to seek for help!
Possibly the priest says his routine words and expects something. Sixty thousand people look to the skies and pray and pay the priest. Month after month they still look, still pay and pray. … Think of that! Is it not lunacy? What else is it? Who is responsible? You may preach religion, but to excite the minds of undeveloped children… ! You will have to suffer for that. In your heart of hearts, what are you? For every weakening thought you have put into anybody’s head you will have to pay with compound interest. The law of Karma must have its pound of flesh. …
There is only one sin. That is weakness. When I was a boy I read Milton’s Paradise Lost. The only good man I had any respect for was Satan. The only saint is that soul that never weakens, faces everything, and determines to die game.
Stand up and die game! … Do not add one lunacy to another. Do not add your weakness to the evil that is going to come. That is all I have to say to the world. Be strong! … You talk of ghosts and devils. We are the living devils. The sign of life is strength and growth. The sign of death is weakness. Whatever is weak, avoid! It is death. If it is strength, go down into hell and get hold of it! There is salvation only for the brave. “None but the brave deserves the fair.” None but the bravest deserves salvation. Whose hell? Whose torture? Whose sin? Whose weakness? Whose death? Whose disease?
You believe in God. If you do, believe in the real God. “Thou art the man, thou the woman, thou the young man walking in the strength of youth, … thou the old man tottering with his stick.” (Shvetâshvatara, IV. 3.) Thou art weakness. Thou art fear. Thou art heaven, and Thou art hell. Thou art the serpent that would sting. Come thou as fear! Come thou as death! Come thou as misery! …
All weakness, all bondage is imagination. Speak one word to it, it must vanish. Do not weaken! There is no other way out…. Stand up and be strong! No fear. No superstition. Face the truth as it is! If death comes — that is the worst of our miseries — let it come! We are determined to die game. That is all the religion I know. I have not attained to it, but I am struggling to do it. I may not, but you may. Go on!
Where one sees another, one hears another so long as there are two, there must be fear, and fear is the mother of all [misery]. Where none sees another, where it is all One, there is none to be miserable, none to be unhappy. (Chhândogya, VII. xxiii-xxiv, (adapted)) [There is only] the One without a second. Therefore be not afraid. Awake, arise, and stop not till the goal is reached!