Tallman State Park, Palisades, NY
August 14, 2016
In meditation last week, I was examining the contradiction of my higher and lower nature from an immediate practical point of view, and it suddenly struck me quite clearly that I have never quite understood the meaning of the Bhagavad-Gita.
The classic tale of the battle between the Pandavas and Kauravas has always seemed to me to be the matrix, the outward setting, within which Arjuna's spiritual crisis takes place. It was only last week that it occurred to me that the setting is actually an inward one; that is to say, the conflict between the two families represents Arjuna's inner battle with his own nature, which has a higher and lower side.
Arjuna can't sort out the confusion between the many different inward parts of himself, which seemed to be locked in conflict and determined to kill one another, since there seems to be no way they can live together in the same Being. I'm reminded here of the struggle between the sacred and profane, which always takes place within the midst of ordinary life and can't be easily sorted out. As human beings, for example, we are always confronted with the contradiction between the inevitability and truth of our sexual lusts, and the attraction to a chaste purity represented by the influence of the Holy Virgin and Christ. We aren't going to sort these two influences out from one another very easily; they are both real, and one seems to preclude the other. Man and woman live their lives out poised in the "battlefield" between higher and lower influences; this is the realm of choice where we must make decisions about which God — which impulse — we will follow.
In this realm of choice, which appears to be a battlefield, we struggle for the ownership of our own attitudes and the nature of our Being. Rereading "man's search for meaning" by Victor Frankel over the last week (I have not read this fine book for many years, but it must be considered absolutely essential reading for anyone engaged in spiritual effort) I was struck by the following comments:
"It is apparent that the mere knowledge that a man was either a camp guard or a prisoner tells us almost nothing. Human kindness can be found in all groups, even those which as a whole it would be easy to condemn. The boundaries between groups overlapped and we must not try to simplify matters by saying that these men were angels and those were devils...
From all this we may learn that there are two races of men in this world, but only these two — the "race" of the decent man and the "race" of the indecent man...
Life in a concentration camp tore open the human soul and exposed its depths. Is it surprising that in those steps we again found only human qualities which in their very nature were a mixture of good and evil? The rift dividing good from evil, which goes to all human beings, reaches into the lowest depths and becomes apparent even on the bottom of the abyss which is laid open by the concentration camp."
—Viktor Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning, Beacon Press, Boston (hardcover edition) pg. 81. the passage has been edited for brevity; refer to the original for the full scope of his remarks in this section.
Frankl emphasizes the essential role of the choices we make, even in the most adverse and extreme circumstances — perhaps, most importantly in the most adverse and extreme circumstances.
This young woman knew that she would die in the next few days. But when I talked to her she was cheerful in spite of this knowledge. "I am grateful that fate has hit me so hard," she told me. "In my former life I was spoiled and did not take spiritual accomplishment seriously."
—ibid, p. 65
These circumstances are the ones where our choices become most important.
In the next post, I'll return to Arjuna's dilemma.
Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.