Karma and Jnana

I stumbled into yoga sometime around 15 – 20 years ago. My practice was guided almost exclusively by televised workout programs for those first few years, and then I took some classes, read some books, took more classes, and read more books. The only shortcoming of my life as a yogi has been my consistency: I might practice for a few years regularly, and then go on an unintentional hiatus for a few more. I even received a YOGA for Youth certification a few years ago, that has never actually come up as a teacher.

A staple of what I’ve learned throughout my practice is that practice alone isn’t what interests me: I’m also fascinated by the philosophy, and more than mere intrigue, I feel genuine attachment to it. Not to say it fills in the blanks of Jewish belief, but at times it seems to, and at other times it shines new light upon familiar scripture. The practice of Yoga, not merely the fitness of it, has persisted even when my exercise has not.

And when I finished reading the Sefer Yetzirah, a cornerstone of Jewish mystical thought, it seemed only natural to focus my gaze upon a cornerstone of the Yogic tradition: the Bhagavad Gita.

In a literary sense, the Bhagavad Gita tells the story of Arjuna’s encounter with Krishna in the midst of a great war that fills Arjuna with anguish, but in a spiritual sense, the story falls away beneath the words of Krishna himself: it is a message of faith, the directions to live a life of ascension, one that passes from this world into the next.

There are seemingly many parallels between the Bhagavad Gita and the Sefer Yetzirah, ones that I’d like to explore more deeply in the future (as a way of synthesizing two sides of my spirituality), but in this initial reading, I wanted to observe the story for itself, without trying to overlay additional mystical philosophies atop it.

And I was a bit surprised, the Bhagavad Gita is short. The translator’s introduction to the translation was almost half the length of the text itself. The words fly by quickly, and I feel I’ll need to read it once or twice more to truly understand the depth of the story, but in this initial experience, I feel the message can be summarized in two words.

Karma and Jnana.

Karma and Jnana refer to the two yogas that Krishna talks about, although I felt he put more emphasis on the former. Jnana yoga is the path of knowledge: disciples meditate and study to transcend above the confines of this existence. Karma yoga is the path of work: through devoting all actions to God, by conducting oneself as though every act is an instance of worship, disciples raise themselves into Krishna’s arms.

In one sense, I can see definite traces of the caste system and excusing violence (in the context of Arjuna’s anguish at killing) all in the name of Karma yoga, of fulfilling the purpose we were placed on the earth to serve, but if I detach my limited awareness of Indian social issues, and look at it purely from a place of faith, then it sounds a lot like what I’ve said myself many times before: that my faith underlies all my actions.

At least, that’s what I like to think. I can trace my behavior to aspects of my faith, but there are also times when I act on impulse and don’t consider the impact of my actions or the influence of my faith upon them. And this is a place I strive to improve, and a shortcoming I have recognized for some time. Probably many of us are here; but the number of those who stray doesn’t excuse the straying itself. Being the best version of me doesn’t depend on how many people are (or are not) the best versions of themselves.

I debated for a few days if I even wanted to write this post. Compared to my thoughts on the Lord of the Rings, or even the Series of Unfortunate Events Netflix series, my thoughts on the Bhagavad Gita seem…small in comparison. Perhaps I haven’t truly understood the meaning behind it. Perhaps I haven’t internalized it enough. But then again, doesn’t talking about it help me make sense of what it meant?

I know I’m going to read it again someday, and I have a second version that’s annotated with commentary that I’d like to read as well, but for now, the Bhagavad Gita was still on my reading list this year, and I felt it was important to at least share my preliminary thoughts after reading it. That is, after all, why I wrote that goal post in the first place.

So have I grown from reading it? Yes. I said at the beginning that my practice of yoga has been inconsistent, but perhaps I was wrong. Perhaps my practice of hattha yoga has been inconsistent, but my pursuit of knowledge hasn’t ever ebbed, and my dedication to work has never strayed. Perhaps I’m more a yogi than I realized.

But does that matter?

If Krishna’s message is that who we are only matters insofar as what we do, then ascribing myself to a  label is meaningless: If my purpose is to do yoga, then it doesn’t matter if I’m a yogi or not a yogi, except that I should do yoga. If my purpose is a writer, then I should write. If I’m a teacher, then I should teach. Today’s world, however, isn’t confined to singular stories: I am a teacher, a practitioner of yoga, a Jew, a gay man, a pledge in a leather club, a gamer, a dog owner, a writer, a reader, and I can keep listing roles that I fulfill through my actions–but are these roles really who I am?

Or am I more than their sum? Less than their product? Approximately equal to the average of their arithmetic and geometric means? What does it matter anymore?

I am. Perhaps that’s Arjuna’s epiphany, and everything else is commentary.

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